Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Aging. Death. Passing On. Dying. 

It's not really the sort of topic you bring up when you're trying to make people feel at ease.

Roz Chast's parents wouldn't discuss the subject at all with her, which made things difficult for their only child. Her book, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is an illustrated memoir of the years Chast spent with her parents in their senescence.

The book is excellent. So excellent that I *want* to talk about it.

This is my Grandma Mary, who passed away in 2009
I actually moderated a panel about aging and eldercare for my church in April this year. It was a fascinating experience. I knew that there was a lot I didn't know about caring for the elderly, but I still don't think I've done more than scratch the surface. On the panel we had a lawyer, a financial planner, an elderly woman who had taken care of her mother for many years, and a young woman who had cared for her elderly grandparents until they passed away. There were so many good questions and people wanting to keep talking about the subject that the panel reconvened for a second night. Unfortunately round two was just after we made the move to Connecticut.

One of the main things that I took away from the panel was that though caring for your dying relatives is unquestionably complex and taxing, it can also be life-changing in a good way.

So, when Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant came on my radar, I was interested, and reserved it at the library. Come to find out Roz Chast is a cartoonist for The New Yorker.

Amazon affiliate link, in case you'd like to shop for this one.
I don't even think I can articulate how well this book was paced. You know, going into it, that her parents are going to die. So Chast guides us to the questions she had during the experience: Which parent is going to die first? How is this different from what I expected? How bad do things need to get before someone steps in here? How much is this going to cost? How do I feel now that it's all over?

The book was so thought provoking that I found myself mentioning it in casual conversations. Someone would say something and I'd respond, "that reminds me of this book I'm reading..." I found it fascinating to read the little details of their lives that came up in the book. I determined not to hoard things. I made myself a cheesetainer.

I want my parents to read it. I think we could have some great discussions, since I know they're more open to the subject than the Chasts were. Though, heads up, Mom: the book has maybe 3 or 4 uses of unsavory expletives. It's worth it, though.

"Well. Here we are. In our lives." says my dad, every so often.
The coloring is great. The lines of the artwork are imperfect and expressive. Chast's style reminds me a bit of The Far Side comics by Gary Larsen. I tried to read another graphic novel memoir right afterward and just felt like it was overloaded with text. This one is really artfully composed and layed out. It's easy to read. I should say that it's visually easy to read. Whether or not you find it "easy to read" will probably depend on your own experiences with aging, death, passing on and dying.

Anyway, I recommend it. I feel like reading it helped me think more deeply about what I want out of life and about how I can support and comfort others.

Will you talk to me about this uncomfortable subject?
If you've lost a close relative or friend, what advice do you have for those who face this certainty in the future?


  1. My parents are 81, and the thing that annoys me most is that they are SURPRISED by their decline. I think I'll take a look at the book, but there's no way I want to talk to my parents about anything but the next imagined crisis I can't avoid (My jeans are wearing out. What will I DO?). Soon they will die, and I will move on. People die. We need to stop being surprised by this as a society. (As you can tell, I am merely annoyed by entire process and have a rest home in Thailand picked out for myself so my daughters don't have to deal with me. I'll tell them I'm having adventures.)

  2. This week I asked my 8th grade science students how to tell if something is alive. One student said, "poke it", which I thought was right on target because living things respond to their environment. Anyway, we also brought up the fact that all living things die (besides have cells, reproduce, move ...). So I think I have a pretty good grasp on the cycle of life. But somehow I am still a little surprised (or maybe just really inconvenienced?) by my own decline, as Ms. Yingling puts it. So I think I would enjoy reading this book. Maybe it will "poke" me a little =)

    1. Y'know, this is reminding me of a conversation I had with my friend Hilary once. She was talking about how she knew from her youth that she was destined to be single well into adulthood, but that didn't make it any easier, apparently. I said, I could totally relate. At the time I was pregnant with my second child and I said, "I knew what I was getting into here... I knew that after you get pregnant you have to go through labor and delivery. But I'm still totally dreading it and having a hard time preparing for this inevitability."

      Death is inevitable. As I once heard someone say, "Nobody gets out of this life alive!" But preparing for it is really difficult. Coming to terms with its coming closer is frightening.

  3. Just finished reading this! Thanks for the recommendation; well worth the time! I can relate to the other comments -- my grandparents have all been surprised by their inevitable decline to one extent or another. Like the climbing on the stepladder, sometimes they don't accept their limitations until it's too late. I'd like to think I will have more wisdom about this as I age because in a sense, I aged prematurely when my health problems developed. I've already had the heart-rending experience of accepting that there are things I will never be able to do again. I've already had to accept and eventually learn to love a bedridden life and find meaning and purpose in it. I would like to think I have a head-start based on my own experience and watching all 4 of my grandparents' declines up close (lived with all of them at different times). But even so, I think it will still be hard to accept both my own impending death and my parents' no matter how matter-of-fact I can be about it now.

    1. Wow, "I've already had to accept and eventually learn to love a bedridden life..." It's so awesome how your chronic illness is now giving you a leg up! Haha. But you're totally right. I bet your wisdom will benefit many around you as we all get older. When I become bedridden I'll email you and be like, "Ok Lindsay, it has happened. How do I find meaning and purpose?" :D Even if your wisdom isn't perfect I'm sure it will be *great*. Glad you liked the book!


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