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November 22, 2021

The BookLife Review called The Smooth River “an inspiring, beautifully written account of living a life of purpose when faced with a terminal illness.” In Cohen’s words, it’s “a case study” of his and his wife’s handling of her cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. We spoke with Cohen about his goals for the book and what he hopes readers will take away from it.

After your wife’s death, what made you decide to write The Smooth River?

The concept of this book sprang from repeated comments by doctors and nurses that the way Marcia and I handled her 160-day terminal illness was more uplifting, clearheaded, and composed than the norm. After Marcia passed, several medical professionals encouraged me to share our experience in the hope of helping others similarly situated.

The Smooth River is neither a traditional memoir nor a “how to” guide. Rather, it’s a case study of one couple opting for calm within a crisis, offering vital life lessons that readers might adopt to realize their own peace and fulfillment, whatever their circumstances.

Can you describe the goal of the book?

To help other people. I am humbled to have the opportunity to demystify an experience that can feel terribly lonely and to suggest constructive approaches that remind us all that our lives should not be defined by the way we die but by the entirety of the way we live.

I also hope to shine a light on a pervasive societal problem: we avoid discussing and coming to terms with the finite nature of life, that we are all going to die, some within a compressed period. Conventional norms still need to be changed to better understand and appreciate the dignity of dying and not see it as a taboo subject.

Failing to address the prospect of dying can lead to unnecessary and costly procedures that do more harm than good. By engaging in ODTAA—one damn thing after another—we squander precious time that can be better spent embracing activities that are life-affirming. I hope to provide an in-the-trenches picture of the immense benefits of accepting life’s practical realities, amplifying the important messages of Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death & Dying.

Did your experience in the healthcare industry help as you were writing?
My work requires analysis of new medical diagnostics and treatments and the ability to clearly and credibly present a technology’s benefits to sophisticated audiences. So, organizing technical information, developing a good rapport with doctors and others, and creating new structures based on precedent all came in handy when tending to Marcia’s illness. As if she were a client, I followed her marching orders: she did not want to be treated as a tragedy. And nothing would jeopardize the fullness of her life—not her illness, not even her dying.

How do you imagine readers at this moment will connect to The Smooth River?

I hope that readers will draw from the narrative and the book’s more practical “ready-to-use” points, which they may personalize for their own circumstances. I hope the medical and life plans we developed can spur readers’ thinking about how to develop their own medical and life plans. Most of all, I hope that doctors, patients, and their loved ones—everybody—can softly and gently discuss and make peace with life’s end so that we can make the most of our remaining time. Making the best use of the limited period we have on Earth is an immensely rewarding mindset for everyone, whatever their age, whether they are ill or healthy.

What’s next for you?

I’ve become Marcia-ized: softer, more tolerant, more compassionate, more big picture. I’m more engaged in various activities to help the underprivileged. With Marcia’s passing, I hope to join those wounded by loss, those in medical turmoil, medical professionals, and others in improving our perspectives on life and death.

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