Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

‘If doctors cannot fix things, then what is the point of us?’

Rachel Clarke, daughter of a physician, came to medicine after a career in journalism.  Her father, an important part of this book, was also a doctor.  While completing her training in Britain, Ms Clarke was drawn to palliative care.

This book is part biography, part meditation on the role of medicine in death and dying.

I read this book, remembering my own parents experience with palliative care, in Tasmania, ten and seven years ago.  One experience, in a palliative care setting, was caring and supportive.  The other experience, in a general hospital, was more focussed on suggesting interventions.  Both sets of medical professionals were caring, both wanted the best outcomes, but one was much more accepting of the inevitability of death.  I know which I would prefer for myself.

I kept reading, remembering my own experiences of nursing the dying during the 1970s. And, more recently, the experiences of friends.  A wife who suffered, a husband who had a peaceful death.  Different professionals, different approaches to what was (in both cases) inevitable.

What makes Ms Clarke’s book special for me is her writing about her father’s death.  While the trained professional knows what is coming, the daughter is grief-stricken.  What we know in theory is never quite enough to equip us to deal with personal experience. 

‘That grief is the form that love takes when someone dies.’

At times heartbreaking, at times uplifting.  This is a book focussed on life.  It is a book which invites the reader to think about death as a part of life, and to remember that those dying are still living. It is a reminder, as well, of some of the ethical issues surrounding life and death. 

I am glad I read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith