What I Wish I'd Known About Death and Denial: Author David Rieff

The author of Swimming in a Sea of Death discusses helping his mother, Susan Sontag, believe she could beat a fatal illness.

When intellectual and author Susan Sontag learned, at the age of 71, that she had a rare blood malignancy, she went into vehement denial about dying -- and demanded that her son, David Rieff, do so too. As Rieff writes in his memoir Swimming in a Sea of Death, he found himself forced into a lie, seizing on the smallest kernels of hope to support his mother's belief that the last-resort treatment she had chosen to undergo would save her life. "Like a lawyer, I was making a brief for her survival, and that's what she wanted," he says.

Being Sontag's reluctant accomplice also meant that Rieff had to submerge his own wishes to have particular conversations with his mother before her death, including saying good-bye to her. "I don't think it was possible for her, given her fear and her belief that she could live," he says. "Would it have been easier for me? Sure. But then it would have been harder for her."

What Rieff took from his experience is the belief that it's not always possible to create the "good death" one would like for a parent. "That's in a way what [my] book is about: I think the interests of the loved one and the interests of the dying person are often at odds, and you have to defer to the dying person. But it's not easy."

Read the full interview with David Rieff.


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