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Book Review: In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death & Dying

Why do we have so much trouble talking about death? Why do we often avoid using the word death to describe an experience that is universal to us all? And why do we not have an accepted description or definition for just what death is?

In her new book, In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, Eve Joseph answers questions like these, and many more.

Joseph, herself a poet, draws upon poetry, physiology, spirituality, and literature to explore death — a concept that all at once intrigues and confounds us. She begins by sharing the unexpected loss of her older brother, an event that perplexed her and, later, seemed to guide her decision to become a hospice care worker. Then, Joseph uses her many years working with the terminally ill and their families to dive into the concepts that surround death, such as grief, hope, physiological changes, last visits, and loss.

And yet the borders of death, like poetry, are blurred. The language of both, Joseph tells us, “is metaphor.” We may bring professionals in when someone is very ill. But when that someone is dying, the custom is to send the professionals away and care for them in the home.

We also have a hard time accepting that death is something we may never understand. For example, Joseph reminds us that although Elisabeth Kübler-Ross so eloquently laid out the stages of grief, “these stages go back and forth.” Grief, she tells us, “is a mess.” And while terminal illness is often characterized by a feeling of hopelessness, it may not be hopeless so much as hope that has itself changed.

Epiphanies like this underscore the point that while death is often marketed as a “teachable moment,” there is much more about it that we don’t understand than that we do. For example, Joseph tells us, when mountain climbers are in danger of falling, “the eyesight intensifies and the feet miraculously take the right steps.” This makes us wonder: what happens in our brains when we know we may be about to lose our lives?

We may never quite know, Joseph writes. “In our encounters with the dying, we each bring our own beliefs — beliefs based on our history with death, our culture, religion or lack of it; beliefs based on mythology or psychology and our motives and expectations.”

Joseph brings us to the bedside of her many hospice patients, showing how these beliefs about death may manifest. She describes a patient named Alistair. Alistair suggests that Joseph might tell him what it is like to die. When Joseph responds that she “has no clue” and that he must, instead, tell her, Alistair talks for two hours about his fear that he had not been a good enough man, and that if there were someone on gatekeeping duty in the heavens, he would have a lot to answer for.

“Death has been sitting there for three nights,” Alistair tells Joseph, pointing to a vase of slender irises, “and tonight, I think we’ll sleep together.”

But as much as our beliefs about death may surface when we face it, we also experience what we don’t know about ourselves, such as our toleration level or saturation point for just how much we can take. For many people, the mere word itself is difficult. As Joseph writes, “Death is rarely called by its own name.” Instead, euphemisms — often those that are based on the Christian hope of resurrection — illuminate how even in trying to talk about death, we often try not to talk about it. We may look for signs of resurrection, often expressed as “visitations” in the form of angels or animals. Joseph describes the experience of her friend, who, a few days after her mother’s death, saw a hummingbird — her mother’s favorite — hovering outside her window. Signs such as this, Joseph writes, “are a confluence of our hopes, memories, and beliefs — a moment where the veil seems to drop and we are granted a glimpse at another reality.”

Through her artfully crafted book, Joseph explores this other reality, as well as how we may experience and deal with the death that precedes it. Offering both practicality and an exceptional sensitivity to the inherently confounding subject of death, In the Slender Margin is a soothing balm to any reader — grieving or not.

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying

Arcade Publishing, January 2016

Hardcover, 224 pages


Book Review: In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death & Dying

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Claire Nana

Claire Nana is a regular contributor and book reviewer for Psych Central.

APA Reference
Nana, C. (2016). Book Review: In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death & Dying. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Feb 2016
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