Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve

Gilbert, Sandra

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle
  • Date of entry: Aug-22-2006
  • Last revised: Nov-28-2006


Gilbert begins her narrative with the event that inspired her to write: her husband's death in 1991 after a routine prostatectomy. "Though he was in robust health apart from the tumor for which he was being treated, Elliot died some six hours after my children and I were told that his surgeon had successfully removed the malignancy. And for the first six months after he died, death suddenly seemed plausible ... "(1).

But whereas her book Wrongful Death (annotated in this database) deals with Elliot Gilbert's death, the present work takes the author through death's door into personal reflection and research across a vast area, including personal, cultural, and literary aspects of death. Larger than a memoir, her work universalizes her personal experience with dying and death. And writing is what she does and what she has to do: "THIS is the curse. Write" (92).

Gilbert divides her material into three main sections, each containing several subsections: 1. Arranging my mourning: five meditations on the psychology of grief; 2. History makes death: how the twentieth century reshaped dying and mourning; and 3. The handbook of heartbreak: contemporary elegy and lamentation. The 27 illustrations she has selected range from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald to recent photographs by Dan Jury, to Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial. In these symbolic representations, Gilbert finds our universal fear of the process of dying, "If this is what it is, GrŸnewald seems to be telling the viewer, for Our Lord to die the death, what must it be for those of us less staunch, less noble - in short, less divine?" (115).

Traditional elegy, by John Milton and Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the other hand, seeks to comfort the poet and reader with the hope of a life hereafter, but modern secular poets like William Carlos Williams and Samuel Beckett offer no solace at all. The older term "expiration" gives hope that our spirit may survive our death. But "termination," the twentieth-century word for death, describes how humans and animals die, in our post-Darwinian world. Her word for this is nada. The holocaust stands as the ultimate ex-termination, or death by technology.

Seeking to understand Sylvia Plath's disease- and death-filled poetry, Gilbert travels literally to Berck-Plage, France, and figuratively, through the notorious "Daddy," "Lady Lazarus," and "Getting There." As a woman and a writer, Gilbert is fascinated by Plath: "For perhaps more than anyone else - more even than her much-admired Wallace Stevens himself - she really did articulate not just the vision but the 'mythology of modern death' that Stevens tentatively proposed" (310). The author contrasts Plath with nineteenth-century Walt Whitman who said, "... to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier" (332). Whitman seems to be ambivalent or even positive towards death; Emily Dickinson, of his same century, finds death terrifying.

Ultimately, modern death is embarrassing; death avoidance prevails, notably among doctors. This despite the fact that the first patient a medical student sees is a cadaver. Death is a doctor's failure and it is easier to blame the patient than to accept the death. Death in an American hospital is a "humanectomy", or physical removal of the individual's humanity as she/he is attached to IVs, monitors, feedings tubes, and other mechanical devices.

Modern hospital death is demeaning, because patients are granted little privacy, their TV sets are set to blaring; all personnel, including doctors, enter their rooms unannounced: "Whereas the patient is emotional - fearful, angry, needy - the doctor is detached, abstract, 'objective' " (189). Clearly, the author still lovingly mourns her dead husband bleeding to death alone in a hospital room. Energized by lost love, she writes and documents and works her way toward death.


Gilbert, a poet and literary scholar, writes on a large scale in straightforward prose about her own experiences with death and about how Western historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and artists have viewed death. She also includes non-Western practices, such as sati. Her book is a personal voyage of discovery that will appeal to readers looking for the big picture. Particularly valuable are her chapters on how technology has shaped our own attitudes to dying and death, and how modern medical practice has come to depend, perhaps too much, on technical innovation.

The author provides helpful analyses of important elegies and poems about death often found in the syllabi of literature and medicine courses. In addition to death, discussions of grief and mourning make up a large part of her study; she writes extensively about the embarrassment mourners feel in our death-denying society. The greatest value of Gilbert's examination of death and dying is the affirmation she finds in her work in the humanities. Though beyond ordinary consolation, she can still appreciate beauty in poetry and art and still write.


Scholarly notes, bibliography, and an index can be found at the end of the volume.


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York



Page Count