Death is one of our last taboo topics, but if it were up to Claire Willis, we would be meeting at cafés, talking about it as openly as the characters on Sex & The City dished about sex. In fact one of her missions is to start a Brookline chapter in the “death café” movement. Willis, a licensed clinical social worker, has been counseling Oncology patients and helping clients with end-of-life issues for the past 25 years. Her new book, Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning Toward the Close of Life, is both a writing guide and a workbook for people struggling to find meaning and hope in the last stages of life.

The book started four years ago, when she was working on her thesis at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. Willis was training to become a Buddhist chaplain. Her teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, had written a seminal book on end-of-life care, Being with Dying, and saw in Willis’ thesis the makings of a book.  With Halifax’s encouragement, Willis developed the thesis, adding exercises and stories from her years leading writing groups for people with terminal Cancer.

The result is a beautiful and oddly uplifting book, considering the subject matter. The themes—of gratitude, wisdom, prayer and forgiveness—are ones that every human being would benefit from exploring.

“Each chapter is research-based and addresses an end-of-life concern,” Claire told me.  We had met at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, 285 Harvard Street, to talk about her book. “Prayer is the last chapter.” Willis was initially concerned about how she would address prayer without introducing religion, which she felt might alienate those whose spirituality was secular. “Then I read Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow and I knew I could write about prayer.”

Willis also has a chapter on wisdom. When people are dying, Willis said, they feel a more urgent desire to pass on the lessons they learned to their children or other young people in their lives. Often those lessons can be misconstrued as dictates and, as such, be rebuffed. So Willis advises turning those lessons into blessings. In Lasting Words, she suggests some alternatives:

“Be generous with others” instead of “Don’t hoard your money.”

“Take into consideration the needs of others” rather than “Don’t be selfish all the time.”

“This book will help children to know their parents as people, not just as ‘their parents’,” Willis tells me.

Willis is a huge proponent of The Conversation Project, journalist and fellow Brookline resident Ellen Goodman’s initiative to get people talking about death and, in particular, their wishes for a good death. What do they want their loved ones to do (and not to do) for them at the end? Goodman’s intent with the project was to help people avoid the pain and uncertainty that she faced when her own mother was dying and she didn’t know what course of action or intervention her mother wanted. “We talked about everything except one thing: how she wanted to live at the end of her life.”

Having the conversation before a loved one becomes gravely ill may be uncomfortable at first, but it “saves people the agony of having to make decisions under horrible pressure,” Willis said. So Willis also includes a chapter called “On Endings” with questions to inspire readers to imagine their death and record their wishes for everything from what music they would like to be playing to under what circumstances they would refuse medical intervention or treatment.

Perhaps most importantly, Lasting Words is a place for the terminally ill to express themselves in a way that they may not have been able to when they were absorbed by the day-to-day tasks of living. Imminent death can reveal in us an eloquence we may not have realized we possessed.

“We all have universal needs. The need to feel we belong, that we’re known, that our life made a difference. This book is a vehicle for insuring that we’re remembered.”

—By Jennifer Campaniolo