In Death, The Gift Of Life

Like many others, Dan Levinson moved from New York to Westport when his children were young. He thought it would be a great place to raise kids.

He was right. He grew to love the town, and has been active in many non-profit organizations here and in Bridgeport.

Like some others, his father — Peritz Levinson — moved in with the Levinsons late in life. He too learned to love the beach, Longshore, the library and Senior Center.

Peritz died a year later. Unlike many others, however, his death was not frightening, painful or brutal.

Instead, it was powerful. It was meaningful.

And now it’s become the impetus for an intriguing, important book project.

Peritz Levinson spent his life in Cincinnati. That’s where he took care of his own parents, until they died.

Peritz Levinson, with a very young Dan.

A psychiatrist, he came to Westport when he was 90. His wife had died, and he was ailing. He did not want to impose on his son.

Peritz need not have worried. He had prepared to die. During the last year of his life, he “became transcendent,” Dan says. “He was less present, but more brilliant.”

As they heard Dan talk about his father’s death, people who befriended Peritz during his last year — Sue Pfister at the Senior Center, Bill Harmer of the Westport Library, Sharon Bradley at Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County — encouraged Dan to write about the experience.

Peritz and Dan Levinson take a selfie.

He realized there were other stories out there, of “good deaths.” He decided to find them, find writers to tell them, and collect them in a book.

“Beautiful Exits: Sparking Local Conversation on Dying Well” will be “hyperlocal,” he says, featuring 10 stories from Westport.

“It’s not a book for the world. But I think it can influence a lot of people.”

For much of history, Dan notes, death was seen as a natural part of life. People died at home, surrounded by loved ones. But advances in technology and medicine have made us think we need to “fight and scrap,” to put off the inevitable end of our days.

Peritz Levinson, enjoying his son Dan’s back yard.

Peritz Levinson had thought for years about death. He was a founding member of Exit International. The non-profit organization wants to ensure that all rational adults have access to the best available information, so they can make informed decisions about when and how they die.

“My father wanted to be present as he died,” Dan says. “He was calm. He had clarity.”

The final 3 months in particular were “spectacular.”

Dan took his father to meaningful places. Peritz loved the beach. At Elvira’s, Stacy gave him rice pudding. When they drove through the golf course, people waved. Dan’s son Jesse — Peritz’s grandson — was around for much of the time too.

Peritz Levinson, surrounded by (clockwise from lower left), his grandchildren Andie, Adam and Jesse, plus Andie’s fiance Steve and Adam’s girlfriend Hayley.

“It was beautiful,” Dan says. “We had quality time, and closure. There was acceptance and peace.”

Dan is fully aware that his family’s experience is rare. Part of the reason for the book is to spark conversations about dying.

He’s identified many of the 10 stories — and 10 writers — for the book. He only needs a couple of both.

Estelle Margolis, longtime activitst and a Westporter who prepared well for her own death.

Longtime civic volunteer and political activist Estelle Margolis, for example, prepared well for her own death. Her grandson will write her story. Rev. Alison Patton and her husband Craig would like to tell the story of someone still living, now making preparations before death.

“Beautiful Exits” will also include a short piece by assistant town attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug framing the history and legal issues, and another by State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, a proponent of a proposed law that would allow a terminally ill patient with 6 months to live to take his or her own life.

Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Frank Hall may also contribute a piece about death and dying.

Artist Miggs Burroughs might create some of his young-and-old lenticular images for the book.

Someone told Dan, “Your father gave you his life. And he gave you his death.”

Now Dan Levinson is passing on that gift, just as his dad did: with honesty, clarity, grace and love.

8 responses to “In Death, The Gift Of Life

  1. Sarah Gross

    Dan Levinson – Thank you for acknowledging this blessng bestowed upon you with your father’s passng. Isn’t it unexpectedly amazing???? I paint about it actually and This was true of our father’s death too- Danny wrote about his passing a few years ago
    In fact – probably similar to your experience – our father became more alive in many ways as he died. like a wise buddha and we began filming his stories and his process. His memorial was an astounding gift, with a young pianist who my father had mentored driving from Detroit to play his gratitude and those who spoke shared other unknown chapters So – with his death his life actually expaned for us. Going through his papers,, finding homes for his thousands of books and cd’s, was profound though we are still speculating about his relationship with Marlene Dietrick 😉 Hand written quotes on little scraps of paper found in drawers, within books, everywhere, were particularly delightful.- like they had been planted there for us to find in order to understand him even more. Yes there are good deaths that actually live on and continue to give. That has been our unexpected experience of this gift of life and death of our father too. Thank you for acknowledging this

  2. Our society is afraid of death. I’m so glad to read about this and look fwd to seeing the book. When and where can I get it?

  3. Thank you – this is a beautiful, meaningful post. Bill Moyers did a piece on the Zen Hospice Center in CA that is accessible on YouTube, and that I use when I talk about dying a “good death” with my social work students. Because we don’t like to talk about this stage of life and it isn’t something doctors can treat or make better, there is a lot of silence around dying, and that silence results in isolation and often greater depression for the person dying as well as their family. I would love to have a similar “resting place” to the Zen Hospice Center in the Westport area, and more open conversations about how to die a good death. Thanks again.

  4. Cynthia Mindell

    Thank you, Dan and Dan, for bringing this beautiful project to our attention!

    A propos, Death Cafe is an international movement launched as a way to confront “death-phobia” and encourage discussions about a difficult but natural (and inevitable) part of life.

    “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.'”

    The closest meetings to Westport are held in New Haven and Katonah:

  5. Anne Lloyd Du Pont

    Thank you for this post on you book. A friend passed it on to me. I was blessed to spend the past several years with a beautiful man who had congestive heart failure and kidney disease. He passed March 30th and was present and able to make his own choices and include me and his brother in his final decision to accept comfort care. At 60 he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart from untreated high blood pressure, and He spent the past 9 years preparing …contemplating life and death…and exploring his own spirituality. He invited me in to his world as both a care giver, lover and beloved Comrade. He indeed gifted to me a new life experience and a different relationship with death. He was the love of my many lives and i will carry his love, energy, peace and wisdom until I too pass. I would love to purchase your book when it is complete. Thank you

  6. Sarah Gross

    Barbara Slaine of the Liphe Balance Center in Weston has gatherings at times to discuss and presence lifes passing. If you ask to be put on the mailing list you can be included in the announcemnts – October 26th and 27tj of this year she is giving a class called Participation, Preparation and Peace in relation to death and dying You can read about it here

  7. Warren Shapiro

    Dan Woog, GREAT job! I knew Dr. Levinson for many years professionally. He was a kind, gentle, bright man who could be counted upon to treat people with respect and great care.

    I was a social worker in Greenwich in private practice and in nursing homes and I had the opportunity to refer several patients to him over the years. I spoke to him a number of times on the phone and met him once or twice. He was on the short list of “go to” psychiatrists with an office in Old Greenwich (if my memory serves me correctly). A nice nice man and a fine psychiatrist. I was sad to read this but also uplifted by his and his son’s extraordinary story. I’m going to be looking for the book! Rest in peace Dr. Levinson! Count me as one of your many fans.