Category Archives: In Search of A Good Death

Stories and Ideas about creating a “good” end of life and dying experience

We never know how high we are

Till we are called to rise.

                                                            Emily Dickinson

It could be suggested that the “good death” is falsely named in the field of thanatology and in the popular press.  It implies an ideal state, one which of course, we cannot have.  Never agonize over ideals when the problem is as urgent as death.  Perhaps it should be renamed “the good-enough death,” one that is sufficient and satisfactory to both the dying person and the caregiver.  It is the best that can be achieved at that time, in that place, by those people, with that problem, in their particular situation.  Maya Angelou was right to say, “You did then what you knew how to do, and when you know better, you will do better.”   Death and dying are extremely personal. Continue reading

end

According to Steven Covey, in his book the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the second habit that one should have or develop is to “begin with the end in mind.” Now, I’m pretty sure that Covey’s intention was not to have you wake up every day and think about your death, but maybe he should consider adding this to his description of the principle. You see there is something very powerful about entertaining thoughts of your end…somehow, it clarifies and magnifies the present.  Many other “Highly Effective” and brilliant people throughout the ages have practiced this same principle.

Take Shakespeare for example, he was a pretty smart guy. By all accounts, he had a “highly effective” life, and he penned these words, “Be still prepared for death- and death or life shall thereby be the sweeter.” (Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene I)

Hmmm… sounds like he was on to something.

Centuries later, Steve Jobs, another “Highly Effective” and brilliant guy said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yep, there’s a whole lotta truth to this.

 I recently spoke at a Church who is actively seeking to look death in the face as a way of deepening the experience of daily life, a practice known as Momentum Mori, first initiated in 5th Century Benedictine spiritual practice. The congregation has devoted a whole month of sessions to this principle. Wow! Similarly, many Buddhist spend hours meditating on death. A Buddhist friend of mine spent extensive amounts of time sitting in grave yards meditating on the reality of her own death.

Anyone involved in any such bold spiritual practice is bound to find his or her daily life transformed. Living in the present with the knowledge that each moment might be your last (and preparing for it)– reorients you to what is most important in your daily living.

Personally, I came by this practice not by spiritual discipline, but by the nature of my work. I am one of the lucky ones who has the privilege of witness dying on a regular basis. Yes, I said “lucky”. You read that right.

You see, rather than choosing to add “facing death” to my spiritual practice, I am forced to look death in the face on a daily and weekly basis. I come home after most shifts recognizing that this day, this hour, this moment, could be my last. And then, I ask myself some variation of the following questions: “Is this the life I long to lead?” “Are these things the best use of my time?” “Can I sleep tonight with a clear conscience?” “Do my children know that I love them?”

And what about those questions…how do you answer them?

If your answers to any of these questions are “No,” then I challenge you to “begin with your end in mind”…it really makes everything better. Just ask Steven Covey.

Photocredits: productiveflourishing.com

Standing up from my computer terminal to go see another patient, I caught a glimpse of a small, spindly frail woman being rolled by paramedics into one of my shock and trauma rooms.

Very calmly, I remarked, “That woman is dying.”

The medical student who was rotating with me was unnerved that I would make such a pronouncement out of a mere casual observance, “Oh my goodness! How can you just say that?” Continue reading

Watching my grandfather pass away changed my life. It wasn’t sudden and it shouldn’t have been unexpected. Yet it seemed unnatural, mysterious, and incredibly uncomfortable. I can still remember receiving the phone call from the hospital, my mother letting out a distraught cry that my grandfather was no more. My initial reaction was shock and confusion; I just couldn’t understand what had happened. Looking back, he had been under intensive care for so long – five months to be exact – that we should have known that his body was only taking its natural course. Continue reading

Editor’s Note: Please note Sherri’s exquisite and beautiful attention to detail and environment as her father died. She created a sacred space, a sacred dying experience for her father and her family. Death is and can be further groomed to become a holy moment–this is most easily accomplished if dying can occur in the home. Imagine the stark contrast of experience that may have occured if instead, his dying took place in a hospital room or ICU. Continue reading