“It wasn’t depressing. In the end, it was actually very life-affirming,” says Himmel, who appears with Fran Smith (both are former San Jose Mercury News writers) at Bay Area bookstores this week.
She adds: “Once you acknowledge we are all going to die, and we also can have some control over it, the question, a central premise in the book, becomes, ‘What do want to do with the rest of your life?’”
Although the idea of planning for rapidly impending death runs counter to America’s youth-oriented culture and its focus on the notion that modern medicine can cure everything, hospice is far from a foreign concept in the U.S.
Himmel and Smith found that nearly half of Americans die in hospice care. Yet they used it for 21 days or less — “not really enough to get much benefit,” says Himmel, who also co-wrote 2009’s “Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia.”
Smith and Himmel decided to tackle the tough subject after experiencing the deaths of their own fathers in different ways. Himmel, whose father was in hospice, was with him when he died peacefully. Smith regretfully made it to her dad’s hospital room 40 minutes after he died, after years of dementia and increasing physical incapacity.
“Changing The Way We Die” is different from other end-of-life books in that its case studies are of real people — not composites — and that it sets the hospice movement in context, addressing its history and development in America.
The pair divided writing duties according to interests and strengths, with Smith, who lives in New York, mostly handling business and history, and Himmel mostly focusing on spirituality and personal stories — many from patients and families using services at Hospice of the Valley in San Jose.
Himmel says she was motivated by many positive encounters: with people open to talking about death; with those who wished they had known about hospice sooner; and those who have the mantra, “You’re not a disease, you’re a real person,” who advocate hospice-style treatment for all health care, not just at the end of life.
IF YOU GO
Changing The Way We Die
Written by Fran Smith and Sheila Himmel
Publisher: Viva Editions
7:30 p.m. Monday: Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park
7:30 p.m. Tuesday: East West Bookstore, Mountain View
7 p.m. Wednesday: Main Library, S.F.
1 and 6 p.m. Thursday: Hospice of the Valley, San Jose
4 p.m. Saturday: Book Passage, Corte Madera