Is there anything we can do to prepare for the inevitable?

Next week, the San Francisco Zen Center will host a panel to discuss just that: how do we confront old age, sickness and death?

Panelists will include Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, a widow and physician; Grace Dammann, a Buddhist physician; and Lennon Flowers, founder of The Dinner Party, a community of young people who have experienced early loss. Jennifer Block, an interfaith minister and Buddhist chaplain, will moderate.

This week, Tricycle spoke with panelist Lucy Kalanithi, a Stanford University internist and clinical faculty member. Kalanithi, 37, has been promoting her late husband Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air, released earlier this year. Authoring the epilogue, Kalanithi guided the book through the publication process. When Breath Becomes Air went on to become a New York Times bestseller, with more than one million copies sold worldwide.  

It was in 2013, when Paul Kalanithi was finishing up his medical training as a neurosurgeon, that he was diagnosed with advanced metastatic lung cancer. During his treatment, he returned to work, wrote his book, and lived to see the birth of his daughter, Cady. He died two years later.  

“We learned a lot of lessons about acceptance, and sitting with suffering. This is the entree that I think a lot of people have to Buddhism” Kalanithi said. “During Paul’s illness we knew he was dying, but so uncertain of when. Uncertainty is its own form of pain.”

Kalanithi said this is the first time she will speak about her husband’s book and her experience navigating his death for a Buddhist audience.

One of the lessons Kalanithi hopes to share with the audience is the comfort that comes with continuing to talk about a person after their death.

“When someone dies people become afraid to mention their name, they think they’ll make you feel sad, but you’re sad anyway,” Kalanithi said. “Continuing to talk about a loved one is so powerful and important. I’m doing a book tour this fall, and strangers come up to me and want to talk about Paul, which I find so comforting and helpful.”

Kalanithi, who has shared her story extensively with the medical community, said that her experience has made her feel “more connected to other people’s suffering.”

“I didn’t know how to sit with other people’s confusion and pain. I still don’t know the perfect words to say, but I also realize that is not actually the task at hand,” Kalanithi said. “And now, even with the way I’ll raise my daughter, I think about raising a compassionate and resilient child, which is a deeper thing than raising a happy child or a successful child.”   

The two-hour talk will also include breaks for the audience to reflect and respond to the topics of conversation.

“Sickness, Old Age, and Death: A Conversation,” will take place from 7-9 p.m. on Nov. 2 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Tickets and more information are available here.


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