Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (Hardcover)
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September 2013 Indie Next List
“Not only has Katy Butler dug deep and given us a beautiful and compelling look into the issues that her parents faced when approaching the end of their lives, she opens the discussion around how skewed our medical establishment has become in its practice of resuscitating at any cost. Knocking on Heaven's Door probes through Butler's personal experience and examines the difficulties individuals and families now face in choosing their own path to dying. This is an important book with a powerful message that begs to be read and shared'a 'tipping point' kind of book!”
— Sheryl Cotleur, Copperfield's Books, Sebastopol, CA
In this visionary memoir, based on a groundbreaking New York Times Magazine story, award-winning journalist Katy Butler ponders her parents’ desires for “Good Deaths” and the forces within medicine that stood in the way.
Katy Butler was living thousands of miles from her vigorous and self-reliant parents when the call came: a crippling stroke had left her proud seventy-nine-year-old father unable to fasten a belt or complete a sentence. Tragedy at first drew the family closer: her mother devoted herself to caregiving, and Butler joined the twenty-four million Americans helping shepherd parents through their final declines.
Then doctors outfitted her father with a pacemaker, keeping his heart going but doing nothing to prevent his six-year slide into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. When he told his exhausted wife, “I’m living too long,” mother and daughter were forced to confront a series of wrenching moral questions. When does death stop being a curse and become a blessing? Where is the line between saving a life and prolonging a dying? When do you say to a doctor, “Let my loved one go?”
When doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, condemning her father to a prolonged and agonizing death, Butler set out to understand why. Her quest had barely begun when her mother took another path. Faced with her own grave illness, she rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and met death head-on.
With a reporter’s skill and a daughter’s love, Butler explores what happens when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of medicine. Her provocative thesis is that modern medicine, in its pursuit of maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents.
This revolutionary blend of memoir and investigative reporting lays bare the tangled web of technology, medicine, and commerce that dying has become. And it chronicles the rise of Slow Medicine, a new movement trying to reclaim the “Good Deaths” our ancestors prized.
Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a map through the labyrinth of a broken medical system. It will inspire the difficult conversations we need to have with loved ones as it illuminates the path to a better way of death.
About the Author
Katy Butler’s articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Best American Science Writing, and The Best American Essays. A finalist for a National Magazine Award, she lives in Northern California. She is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door and The Art of Dying Well.
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a thoroughly researched and compelling mix of personal narrative and hard-nosed reporting that captures just how flawed care at the end of life has become. My hope is that this book might goad the public into pressuring their elected representatives to further transform health care from its present crisis-driven, reimbursement-driven model to one that truly cares for the patient and the family.”
— Abraham Verghese
“This is a book so honest, so insightful and so achingly beautiful that its poetic essence transcends even the anguished story that it tells. Katy Butler’s perceptive intellect has probed deeply, and seen into the many troubling aspects of our nation’s inability to deal with the reality of dying in the 21st century: emotional, spiritual, medical, financial, social, historical and even political. And yet, though such valuable insights are presented with a journalist’s clear eye, they are so skillfully woven into the narrative of her beloved parents’ deaths that every sentence seems to come from the very wellspring of the human spirit that is in her. This elegiac volume is required reading for every American adult; it has about it a sense of the universal.”
— Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter
“This is some of the most important material I have read in years, and so beautifully written. It is riveting, and even with parents long gone, I found it very hard to put down. Katy Butler's book will challenge and nourish you. I am deeply grateful for its truth, wisdom, and gorgeous stories—some heartbreaking, some life-giving, some both at the same time. Butler is an amazing and generous writer. This book will change you, and, I hope, our society."
— Anne Lamott
"Shimmer[s] with grace, lucid intelligence, and solace."
— Spirituality and Health Magazine
"[An] unflinching look at America's tendency to overtreat [that] makes a strong case for the 'slow medicine' movement, which recognizes that 'dying can be postponed, but aging cannot be cured.'"
— Mother Jones
"[A] deeply felt book...[Butler] is both thoughtful and passionate about the hard questions she raises — questions that most of us will at some point have to consider. Given our rapidly aging population, the timing of this tough and important book could not be better."
— Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Butler argues persuasively for a major cultural shift in how we understand death and dying, medicine and healing. At the same time, she lays her heart bare, making this much more than ideological diatribe. Readers…should be sure to pick up this book. It is one we will be talking about for years to come.”
“ A pitch-perfect call for health care changes in the mechanized deaths many suffer in America.”
— New York Journal of Books
"This braid of a book...examines the battle between death and the imperatives of modern medicine. Impeccably reported, Knocking on Heaven's Door grapples with how we need to protect our loved ones and ourselves."
— More Magazine
"A forthright memoir on illness and investigation of how to improve end-of-life scenarios. With candidness and reverence, Butler examines one of the most challenging questions a child may face: how to let a parent die with dignity and integrity. Honest and compassionate thoughts on helping the elderly through the process of dying."
— Kirkus Reviews
“Katy Butler’s science background and her gift for metaphor make her a wonderfully engaging storyteller, even as she depicts one of our saddest but most common experiences: that of a slow death in an American hospital. Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a terrible, beautiful book that offers the information we need to navigate the complicated world of procedure and technology-driven health care. I’m recommending it to all my friends with aging parents or partners, and holding on to a copy for myself.”
— Mary Pipher
"Katy Butler's new book—brave, frank, poignant, and loving—will encourage the conversation we, as a society, desperately need to have about better ways of dying. From her own closely-examined personal experience, she fearlessly poses the difficult questions that sooner or later will face us all.”
— Adam Hochschild
“Intimate and wise, heartbreakingly compassionate, and critically helpful, this is a truly important work that I hope will be widely read. We have lost our way and Katy Butler’s impeccably researched and powerful tale will help eliminate much suffering on the passage to the mystery of death.”
— Dr. Jack Kornfield
"This is the most important book you and I can read. It is not just about dying, it is about life, our political and medical system, and how to face and address the profound ethical and personal issues that we encounter as we care for those facing dying and death. You will not be able to put this book down. Its tenderness, beauty, and heart-breaking honesty matches the stunning data on dying in the West. A splendid and compassionate endeavor."
— Joan Halifax, PhD, Founding Abbot, Upaya Institute/Zen Center and Director, Project on Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death
"This beautifully written and well researched book will take you deep into the unexplored heart of aging and medical care in America today. With courage, unrelenting honesty, and deepest compassion, Katy Butler shares her saga of how a family of independent, thoughtful, and complex souls attempt to navigate their uncharted journey through medical institutions and specialties. Here, the degree of individual and family suffering turns on myriad decisions, large and small, coerced by economic and institutional forces. Knocking on Heaven’s Door makes it clear that until care of the soul, families, and communities become central to our medical approaches, true quality of care for elders will not be achieved."
— Dennis McCullough
“This book stands as an act of profound courage. It is brutally honest about the nature of relationships, searingly insightful in the potential of healing, and shines and intense light on our ignorance…For that alone, it is an important one to read.”
“Knocking On Heaven’s Door is a disquieting book, and an urgent one. Against a confounding bioethical landscape, Katy Butler traces the odyssey of her parents’ final years with honesty and compassion. She does a great service here, skillfully illuminating issues most of us are destined to face sooner or later. I cannot imagine a finer way to honor the memory of one’s parents than in such a beautifully rendered account.”
— Alexandra Styron
"Compassionate and compelling."
— Shelf Awareness
"Butler’s advice is neither formulaic nor derived from pamphlets...[it] is useful, and her challenge of our culture of denial about death necessary...Knocking on Heaven’s Door [is] a book those caring for dying parents will want to read and reread. [It] will help those many of us who have tended or will tend dying parents to accept the beauty of our imperfect caregiving."
— Boston Globe
"Knocking on Heaven's Door is more than just a guide to dying, or a personal story of a difficult death: It is a lyrical meditation on death written with extraordinary beauty and sensitivity.
— San Francisco Chronicle
"[Knocking on Heaven's Door is] a triumph, distinguished by the beauty of Ms. Butler's prose and her saber-sharp indictment of certain medical habits. [Butler offers an] articulate challenge to the medical profession: to reconsider its reflexive postponement of death long after lifesaving acts cease to be anything but pure brutality."
— New York Times
"A stunning book, truthful and its dignified, and it could be a conversation-starter. If there's a need for that in your family - or if you only want to know what could await you - then read Knocking on Heaven's Door. You won't regret it."
— Appeal Democrat
“Astonishingly beautiful. [Butler’s] honest and challenging book is an invitation to all people—Christians included—to reconsider the meaning of drawn out deaths and extreme measures in a historic—and eternal—perspective.”
— Christianity Today