Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

The Blurb On The Back:

It takes courage to love the things of this world when all of them, without fail, are fleeting, fading, no more than a spark against the darkness of deep time.  Yet when everything you have been and done and meant to the world is being prised from your grasp, human connections are the vital medicine.  It is other people who make the difference.

Rachel Clarke grew up spellbound by her father’s stories of practising medicine.  Then, when she became a doctor, one specialising in palliative medicine, she found herself contemplating all her training had taught her in the face of her own father’s mortality.

Dear Life is the inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking and yet deeply uplifting story f the doctor we would all want to have by our side in a crisis.  The hospice where Rachel works is, of course, a world haunted by loss and grief, but it is also teeming with life.

If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: that the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world.  In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters in life – more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine.

Dear Life is a love letter – to a father, to a profession, to life itself.

You can order DEAR LIFE by Rachel Clarke from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Rachel Clarke is a TV producer turned doctor who specialises in palliative care.  In this deeply moving memoir that at times had me in tears and which made me reconsider my own attitudes towards dying, she talks about her journey towards and experiences in end-of-life care and what it’s taught her about life and living, a journey that’s made more poignant by her experiences caring for her father (a GP) who himself developed terminal cancer.

The book is very personal to Clarke’s experience and there’s some overlap here with Clarke’s previous book YOUR LIFE IN MY HANDS in terms of her journey from TV producer to medical career.  There’s an author’s note at the start, which makes clear that while the anecdotes she shares are rooted in her clinical experience, she has changed elements to preserve confidentiality, but this doesn’t affect how moving those stories are.

I enjoyed knowing more about Clarke’s childhood and relationship with her parents, although her father, who she clearly idolised and was very close to gets more attention here for obvious reasons.  She frames her life around her own near-death experiences, which tie in neatly with the main themes of the book (namely about people’s natural aversion to thinking about death, our fear of it and our lack of preparation for it) before moving onto her medical career and her experiences first as a student, then in ER and finally palliative care.  There are some incredibly moving stories within the book with love very much being the emotion that comes through and links them all.  I certainly came away from it with a better appreciation for what hospices do and the care that people get there from the staff.

Clarke’s memories of her father and the detail of his own battle with cancer is incredibly moving, especially as Clarke is forced to confront her professional view of death and how she treats patients with the inevitable emotion of dealing with her own parent.  I appreciated Clarke’s emotional and intellectual honesty here as she shares some intimate details of her feelings and emotions, which can’t have been easy especially as she conveys how her father was physically diminished by the disease.

The book ends with a postscript setting out a number of issues not directly addressed within the book such as hospice funding (which is poor – and I hadn’t realised how poor) and practical preparations that you can make for death.  Crucially, Clarke also sets out why she doesn’t address the topic of assisted dying in the book – something I respected as her reasons are absolutely sound and show her sensitivity and consideration towards her patients.

All in all, I thought that this was a very touching book that left me with a full regard for people who engage in palliative care and made me rethink my own attitudes towards death and dying.  I genuinely think that this is a must-read book given that it’s the one experience we’re all going to have to deal with at some point and this shows you how it can be done with dignity.  

Thanks to Little Brown for the review copy of this book.

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