by Rosalind Hughes
Dessert First – Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, by J. Dana Trent (Chalice Press, September 2019)
We’re all going to die, and it’s going to be alright.
J. Dana Trent has some experience with death. In her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, she draws on the deeply personal as well as her strong professional association as a hospital chaplain with mapping that passageway that leads from this life to whatever comes next. The book, then, turns into a companion that offers with authority its recommendations for conversations, paperwork, and the after-work of grief; but as one that sits beside the reader, a friend in the hard places.
I should disclose here that I do count the author as a friend – we met at a writing workshop – which is how I came to read an advance copy of this book. Already, though, before I had finished reading it, I was borrowing Dana’s wisdom to help me through conversations at the bedside of a dying parishioner and their spouse.
So is this a book about death, or about grief, or about life? Well, yes. The story is framed by the author’s journey through the death of her mother and the rituals that marked her first year as an adult orphan. From that perspective, it has much to offer about allowing grief into our lives, acknowledging its reality, and learning to work with it. Grief makes us human, and forces us to find out who we are as human beings. In one of those passages in which I felt myself painfully seen and quietly encouraged, Dana writes:
Mom was my source and mirror – a significant part of what I thought made me me. When she died, I had time and ability to process who I was without her.
Grief can happen before death arrives – its anticipation is as exquisitely wrought as any other – and Dana slips back behind that curtain, into the hospital rooms of her “Death Chaplaincy” as a young woman, the ER departments of sudden death, and the holy places of life relinquished, in faith and fear, by the terminally ill.
The author’s own mother chose a medical path of non-resistance that would place her definitively on the road to death. We are all going to die. Some of us have more time to manage our exit than others. The chapter describing Dana’s midwifery to her mother as she pulsed from one state of being to the next was the hardest for me to read, because of the memories it brought back, related but so un-similar, of my mother’s death. And yet, and still, there was sweetness, especially in that image of midwifery.
There is no honest and faithful way of writing about dying, death, and its aftermath without connecting to the grief of others. The reader may find tears cloud their reading. But we “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). There is plenty of laughter, too. Without making light of any of the many experiences, relationships, and their human qualities that inform it, Dana is able to share much of the joy, the lightness, and the complete absurdity that the mortal journey offers:
“All done,” I said, as we poured the last bit into a glass skull-and-crossbones bottle. Fred smiled. You’ve found your life partner if someone willingly helps you transfer cremated remains into souvenir wine bottles for Barbies.”
This is not a gloomy book.
While I am a sucker for stories, I recognize that the usefulness of this book for many in ministry, in families, in communities full of humans who are all going to die will be the practical considerations woven through the narratives, and pulled out into a helpful guide at the end. From conversation starters to theological considerations across religious traditions (Dana herself is a Baptist minister, married to a devout Hindu), legal considerations to funeral reading suggestions, as ever, the author is a mine of information, advice, and sound research.
So why does a book about death and grieving have such an odd title? Dessert First is a nod to Dana’s mother, and yet one more acknowledgement that death is coming for each of us, so we might as well embrace our mortal life and enjoy it, grief and all, with all of its sweetness, tartness, and saltiness.
We’re all going to die. And it’s going to be alright.