April 25, 2021

Is there Such a Thing as a Good Death?

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.

Death is inevitable. We all know that.

We’re all going to shed our bodies one day when our souls embark on the ultimate adventure. Everyone has their own idea about what that journey will be.

So much great literature has been crafted around the imaginings of the experience of dying. We can have faith, study ancient texts, practice prescribed rituals—all to help us tune in better to our own knowing. But let’s be real: no one really knows what is on the other side of this one precious life.

Sometimes death comes in an instant, without warning. A car crash. A fall. A gunshot. Now, instantly, we are gone. Those who knew us are shocked. They search for answers. Why did this awful thing happen? No chance to say goodbye. No time to say I’m sorry to those we’ve hurt, or to say I love you one last time. We don’t get to finish that painting or write that letter of gratitude to the high school coach who changed our lives.

There is another kind of death that shows up like an unexpected visitor. The guest we don’t want to host, but find that we must. Many times, the brand of luggage this death carries is named cancer. Rumi says we must treat even this guest honorably. “Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

This death is not the instant kind. It is a slow progression. There is a lengthy contemplation, maybe even wonder, over what is happening. And there is an awful side that ushers in the deterioration of our body so that we no longer recognize ourselves as we once were. There is the abuse of toxic drugs that are trying to give us one last chance at life. Maybe surgeries happen, or radiation, to eradicate the beast. There is a lot to unpack.

We may choose to slip on the shoes of the victim or the martyr for a while. Guilt visits too, as we see the anguish our loved ones are experiencing, knowing they feel impotent to do anything to help us.

It seems to me there might be a gift that comes with this second kind of death. There is an opportunity to create the container for a good death.

What is a good death? I guess that answer would be different for each one of us.

My mother did not have a good death. After a long battle with breast cancer, she was hospitalized during the last two weeks of her life. She was in pain and in and out of consciousness due to drugs and the hallucinogenic effects of the body shutting down. Her three daughters were by her bedside during those last weeks, but we were not given the gift of being able to speak honestly with our mother, or to say goodbye. We all had to pretend that she was not dying in order to comfort our step-father who insisted she would be coming home “as soon as the doctors got her well again.” Even she had to pretend away her death, giving this last gift to our dad.

My friend, Noni, had a good death. Her cancer was aggressive and she knew she had one year to live out her life. She spent that time planning “special days” with her four daughters, her grandchildren, and all the cousins. She didn’t hide her death from anyone. They all talked freely about it and she shared the wisdom she was gaining through her experience.

On one of those days, her niece told her how much she would miss Noni when she was gone. Noni walked her into a little gift shop and bought a tiny glass bluebird that she could hold in the palm of her hand. She said that after her body was gone, she would live, in spirit, in that little bird. She told her niece that any time she missed her, she could hold that little bird in her hand and speak to her. “I’ll always be listening,” she assured her.

Word got around about the little bird and soon all of the family were asking for a bluebird of their own. Noni gave each daughter, each grandchild, each cousin a bluebird to keep close.

She met with her daughters to sort out bequests and final arrangements. She wanted a celebration of life, nothing solemn.

During this year, she gathered around her a team of caregivers. A massage therapist, a Reiki healer, and a nutritional counselor all became deep, soulful friends. They, along with her daughters, surrounded Noni in love, to be witness to her final moments. They were her midwives, birthing her from this life into the next.

Noni’s was a good death.

I have a dear friend who is, right now, living in the final weeks of her life. She has been a courageous warrior in her battle with an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. It has manifested in multiple invasive tumors, requiring a full cadre of specialists who have carried her along these past six years of intense treatment.

Four years ago, this five-minute film about Judi was produced by an organization called “This Is Living With Cancer.” I’ll let Judi speak for herself, but one thing I am sure of—Judi has lived an incredible life, and she is leaving this life teaching us a precious lesson: sometimes we can choose to have a very good death.

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