Read of the Month: “Getting to Know Death: A Meditation” by Gail Godwin

On a hot afternoon in June 2021, Gail Godwin decides that a recently planted dogwood tree in her garden needs water. A near-fatal decision, as it turns out. In attempting to water the tree, in the month of her eighty-fifth birthday, she falls and breaks her neck.

Getting to Know Death: A Meditation (Bloomsbury Publishing 2024)is Godwin’s autobiographical account of the accident, the long convalescence that follows, and all the thoughts, memories, and reflections that arise during this time.

Right away, the reader is drawn into the inescapable immediacy of an accident too monumental to take in. Time and space change proportions, the distance to the house becomes enormous, and the difficulty of getting back inside to call for help almost insurmountable.

You are down. Flat on your face in the gravel.
It has happened.
Your head and neck are twisted to the left.
Blood dripping onto the gravel

Set in italics, the account of the accident plunges the reader into an absolute present. There is a sense of being “dead” in the center of what is happening, in the middle of an incomprehensible accident of terrifying proportions, right as it happens—in the eye of a storm.

Written in the second person, as if the reader is addressed directly, or as if Godwin is talking to herself, the stream-of-consciousness narrative evokes a sense of direct experience of the trauma of the accident. Writing in the second person in other parts of the book, too, is often Godwin’s way of posing questions she doesn’t really want answers to, questions about realities that may be too hard to take in.

Getting to Know Death takes its cue from an odd dialogue Godwin has had with her therapist. The therapist has recommended that Godwin get to know someone called “Steph,” and Godwin would like to know who this Steph is. But the therapist has not said “Steph,” she has said “death.”

Getting to know death, thinking about death and dying, is what Godwin will do during her long convalescence. She thinks about people she has loved and lost. She turns to images of death in poetry and literature and to biographical passages about the death of authors she has appreciated. She thinks about her own death, having been so much closer to it than when she wrote in “Musings on the Spiritual Life,” an earlier autobiographical essay: “what difference does it make, the exact hour of my death, if, at that hour, I am living in consultancy with God?”


Godwin’s convalescence also involves a return to events in the past of a kind that can neither be completely understood nor laid to rest, memories that can only be dealt with in bits and pieces, through fragments, in short chapters impersonally titled with roman numerals or with short, enigmatic headlines.

Alternating between past and present, between reified remembrances from an external world of achievement and imagined inner worlds of existential depth, the fragmented form of Getting to Know Death corresponds to and reinforces the themes in the book. Resembling a collage with a great number of pieces, the repetition and fragmentation mirror how trauma disrupts one’s world.

Freud saw a “compulsion to repeat” as a way of dealing with traumatic experiences. He thought that a compulsion to return to the memory of the traumatic event was a way to work through and get past unpleasant experiences. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he suggests that, because the patient “cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it,” he “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary event instead of … remembering it as something belonging to the past.”

In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Cathy Caruth has explained trauma as a wound of the mind that “is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that . . . is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.” Since traumatic events can be neither remembered nor retold the way they have occurred, Caruth suggests that “the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.”

In Godwin’s narrative there are repetitive references to nightmares and memories of the darkest moments of tragedy, accident, and death. There is the grief at the loss of her close friend, Pat, who died in 2021, and her esteemed editor friend, Rob Neufeld, who died from ALS in 2019. There are the suicides of her father and brother, deaths that left the family in utter incomprehension and the frustration of never being able to fully understand the fatal choices.  “COUPLE FOUND SHOT was the headline in the newspaper” when Godwin’s brother and ex-partner were found dead: “Afterward, we would go over and over it. . . . The police report would be taken out of the files again and again and scrutinized: Maybe we would see something new that we had missed before.”

Such dark times are “desperate places”:

A place from which you lack the means or power to escape.

A place in which you realize that someone you love does not, and will not ever, love you back.

A place in which you acknowledge your steep falling off in health, or strength, or status. A place in which you must accept that you are losing ground, losing face.

Most of all, a desperate place resembles a dark cul-de-sac:

I can’t see a way out of this.

Things will not necessarily get better.

This is my life, but I may not get to do what I want in it.

Even though Godwin’s own life has been marked by success, love, and appreciation, there has also been trauma, accident, and tragedy. It is remarkable that she has been able to go on facing life with so much graciousness, courage, and determination. Hers is a heart-felt approach to life, a point of view explored from personal, spiritual, and historical perspectives in her book Heart: A Personal Journal through its Myths and Meanings. This heart-felt attitude is present also in Getting to Know Death, infusing the concise cameos of the unexpected new acquaintances Godwin makes during her convalescence: caretaking staff, other patients, doctors, helpers, and people who come into her life after the accident.


In Getting to Know Death, memories and reality mix in a pile of pieces where a small piece can complete or change the picture that emerges. Sometimes seemingly insignificant, random things can turn things around. Small things, Godwin tells us, can alter the course of a life—for better or for worse.

Literature can be such a “small” thing. Godwin tells the story of an Iraq veteran, Kevin Powers, whose depression was lifted by three words he came upon in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. The three words resonated with Powers, who felt that he recognized himself in another person for the first time, and who went on to become a writer himself. “What if he hadn’t happened to pick up that Dylan Thomas collection,” Godwin wonders.

Could something “small” have saved the lives of Godwin’s brother and father, too? In another book, Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, Godwin wonders why her brother went under when she herself did not. For Godwin herself, the “small,” life-saving thing may have been her writing. Writing can even be thought of as a form of prayer, she suggests in “Musings on the Spiritual Life.”


In Getting to Know Death, trees are subtly and significantly present. Outside the home of Godwin’s childhood friend, Pat, there are trees that greet her. In Godwin’s garden, there is the dogwood tree. At the end of the story, it is Mayday. It is one year after the accident. The dogwood tree Godwin had almost given her life for, quite literally, falling and breaking her neck when she wanted to sustain its life, has not survived.

Endowed with symbolism, the dogwood tree recalls the crucifixion of Jesus since, according to legend, the cross was made from dogwood. At the same time, thanks to its ability to thrive in difficult environments and blossom after harsh winters, the dogwood tree symbolizes rebirth and renewal. Similarly, Godwin’s account of her long winter of trauma is suffused with a sense of resilience and regeneration, present in her surrender to and acceptance of life’s unexpected shocks and undesired suffering.


Getting to Know Death begins and ends with images of water. As rich in symbolism as trees, water is usually seen as life-giving and life-sustaining, but here, water and fluids take on more complex connotations. Ranging from references to drops of water on a hot day to masses of water like the depths of a lake (at the beginning of her book, Godwin remembers “The Lake,” a composition that her partner, Robert Starer, finished toward the end of his life), in Getting to Know Death, water represents not only restoration and rebirth but also disease, dying and disappearing. References to body fluids and the need for help with bathroom hygiene after an accident or illness are reminders of the utter lack of control that, ultimately, is an inevitable part of the human condition.

And yet, there is hope. True, the little dogwood tree in Godwin’s garden has died and is being disposed of by workers who dig it up and discard its dry form. But the workers are sprinkling new seeds where the dogwood tree has stood, and they are watering everything well.

Even though thoughts of the unavoidable end of everything alive—animals, vegetation, and humans—may be part of a rehearsal for the final chapter of one’s own life, there is nothing morbid or depressing about Godwin’s reflections. Infused with courage and clarity, her meditation is brightened by the kind of clins d’œil one often finds in Godwin’s universe—observations that are uplifting in their unsentimental realism, sometimes sharp and sardonic, but always heart-felt, life-affirming, and even humorous. Godwin’s clins d’œil are stars that illumine the darker and greater firmament of observations on life and death in Getting to Know Death.

Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed books, including the novels Grief CottageFloraFather Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong, and Publishing, a memoir. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Woodstock, New York.





Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print

Godwin, Gail. Getting to Know Death: A Meditation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2024. Print

————–. Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life.  New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print

————–. “Musings on the Spiritual Life.” An essay published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole Jr., Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Gail Godwin’s home page.
Accessed May 3, 2024

————–. Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. Illustrations by Frances Halsband. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the pleasure principle. Authorized translation from the 2d German ed. by C.J.M. Hubback. London ; International psycho-analytical press, 1922.  International psycho-analytical library ; no. 4.

Accessed May 3, 2024

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