Before writing any review, I usually browse through Goodreads, just to see what others thought of this book. It struck me that many people were surprised by the title of this book: ‘A very easy death’. People wondered how this death, as described in the book, was easy. Personally, I then think you’ve missed the point completely. To me the title ‘A very easy death’, should be interpreted as a question, or even a cynical remark. Death, after all, is never easy.
First off, this is not a novel, nor a philosophical essay. In this book Simone de Beauvoir describes her mother’s illness: cancer. More precisely, she describes her mother’s last days and the process of dying. But the process of letting go of a loved one and of grieving is most acutely described, as De Beauvoir almost analytically recounts her own thoughts. This book is a 30-day account of a once strong mother, now falling apart under the pain and suffering. Her mother now even fears death, though never asking for a priest. And her daughter, Simone de Beauvoir, struggles with the ambivalent feelings towards her mother. When her mother actually dies, it’s a relief to all.
This book hit me on so many emotional levels. In other reviews I read that people thought this should be a compulsory read for anyone who’s ever lost a relative to cancer. I don’t think so: this book will hit you like a ton of bricks. I’ve had my share of loss and this was the first book that actually helped me. Yes, I cried and cried and cried. But I cried because this was so relatable. It was by far the most honest account of a deathbed I’ve ever read. It’s raw and painful and pure. Analytical even, but by no means cold. I wouldn’t say this should be compulsory, but this is a book that will make you feel like someone understands. There are no black or white issues here; just like death, everything is in the grey area.
Simone de Beauvoir doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. Is there a right way of dying, for example? Apparently there is, or so we think. Is there a right way of taking care of someone? She herself comes across as cold-hearted, but she isn’t. Everyone has their own way of grieving. I remember death brought a lot of stigma’s and taboos with it, about the way the family is supposed to behave. Simone de Beauvoir breaks through all of them. Everything you’ve been ashamed of thinking during the process, she states out loud. Shame is irrelevant when something like the death of a parent tears your world apart. Or so it should be…
Simone, as the author and a character in this book as well, really spoke to me. She is so very different from her sister, just in the way they deal with their mother’s illness. Apparently she and her mother have drifted apart a bit, but now that she is dying, she is forced to rethink her relationship with her mother. She has distanced herself from her highly religious mother, but she thought of her mother as superwoman in a way: strong, unbeatable. One part really stood out for me, where Simone describes her mother’s body: How she adored it as a child, how it became awkward for her to look at as an adolescent and how this body, now, in her illness, to her is both repulsive and holy. When a child sees a parent fall apart, they start doubting everything they are themselves. And what can you do about it? Let it happen. Let the feelings and thoughts, those you’ve stashed away for so long, just come.
Lastly, I can’t write a review without mentioning and praising Simone de Beauvoir’s style of writing. A bit complex: but I read this book in Dutch the first time, after that a few times in French, the original language, and now I’m writing this review in English. A lot gets lost in translation though. If you can, read it in French. De Beauvoir has a poetic way of writing about the most morbid of subjects. As I mentioned before, but I can’t stress this enough: she is honest, she is raw, she is analytical, but never unfeeling. It’s literally like looking inside her head. At times she approaches a situation in a philosophical manner. At other times she describes her emotions, her ambivalent feeling towards anything really and her illogical thoughts. Overall, everything was written beautifully and fluidly, like you are right there with her, sitting next to her mother’s bed at the hospital.
Why then the title: a very easy death? The woman dies in relative comfort. She was a lady of considerable means and people are taking care of her. Both her daughters fight throughout the book to keep her suffering to a minimum. So when she’s gone, the nurse calls it an easy death.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t. Her mother is in almost constant excruciating pain and her daughters fight, but can’t do much about it. Neither can the doctors. Her mother was described as a strong woman, full of fight, but she can’t handle the pain and, most of all, the loss of dignity. A few things were very clear to me after finishing this book:
There is no such thing as a right way of taking care of someone who is dying.
There is no such thing as a right way of mourning.
There is no such thing as a right way of dying, even.
Death is never easy, death is always a shock, and death is never natural.
I don’t like quoting in reviews, but this probably sums the book up for me: The honesty, the beautiful French language and the painful accuracy.
‘Tous les hommes sont mortels: mais pour chaque homme sa mort est un accident et, même s’il la connaît et y consent, une violence indue’
(‘All people are mortal; but for everyone death is an accident and, even if one recognizes it and consents to it, an undue violence.’)
Lily award: for all those who’ve loved and lost
Simone de Beauvoir, une mort très douce (Paris, 1964)