Anyone in a happy marriage – perhaps even more so in an unhappy one – ponders the prospect of their spouse dying. A Matter of Death and Life, co-written by a happily married couple who are coming to the end of their lives, is an extraordinary exploration of that eventuality. How could it be anything other than remarkable, given that one of its authors is the internationally renowned psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom, who has dedicated his professional life to addressing grief and death anxiety? His co-author and wife, Marilyn, is no slouch either. A feminist historian and writer, she has matched him book for book.
Irvin has always advised his patients and readers that a good death is one characterised by an absence of regret, and both Irvin and Marilyn, who write alternating chapters in this intimate memoir, agree that they are “regret-free”.
I initially found this assertion extraordinary. How could anyone with any degree of honesty claim to be free of regret? However, the Yaloms define regret in terms of missed opportunities: “the more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety”.
The Yaloms have lives of great richness and accomplishment. Irvin tells us he receives 30 to 40 fan letters and emails a day. Marilyn lists her groundbreaking works in feminist history and name-checks accomplished colleagues and friends, such as the biographer Diane Middlebrook.
The Yalom’s four children are all settled in respectable jobs, and the Yaloms live in a spacious house of books and objets d’art, with a full-time housekeeper to look after them. (They tell us they treat her well.) Sweethearts since high school, the Yaloms still delight in holding hands after 65 years of marriage. Marilyn relates how a writer friend once told a Stanford class, “There’s nothing wrong with privilege. Everyone should have it.” If only it were so.
Perhaps such retrospective appraisal, even self-congratulation, is to be expected towards the end of life. However, the book is at its most compelling – though it is gruesome to say it – when Marilyn dies, leaving Irvin grappling with his grief, realising that only his wife had “the power to penetrate the depths of my isolation”. Irvin comes to wonder if his life was previously too “smug and cozy” for him to have ever understood grief, something a patient once alleged. His honesty and vulnerability are transformational. Read it and weep – for Irvin and Marilyn, for all us mortal beings.
Scribe Publications, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 5, 2021 as "A Matter of Death and Life, Irvin D. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom".
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