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“She’s good. She died…”The transformation of dying in the social consciousness

Monday, 06 Feb 2012 10:38

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page


I have a friend who has always seemed wary about death. When her father was dying, she had a hard time with it. Now, her mother is elderly and sick. Her mother’s primary care doctor has tried to talk to my friend about the inevitable. She didn’t want to discuss it.

One day in the hall at work, she asked me about the book and told me that she thought she needed to read it–thought that it would help. Apparently, it did.

Not too long afterward, a friend of hers came into the ER and was my patient. She was very ill with the complications of a cancer, but was seeking aggressive treatment. We had her admitted to the ICU where she stayed for a few days until the doctors said, “There is nothing more we can do to treat your cancer, but we can make you comfortable…” (I was very proud of those doctors to be able to say those words, to turn her toward comfort-focused medicine). The last I heard, she was in a regular hospital bed wearing an oxygen face mask, and she was comfortable.

I saw my friend today and asked about my former patient, “How is she doing?”

“She’s good…she passed,” my friend said with a gentle smile on her face.

“So, she’s good?” I asked slightly incredulously and not understanding the latter part of her comment.

“Yes, she’s good. She died yesterday at noon.” My friend said still smiling.

“So, she died?” I knew that I was starting to sound dumb, having to repeat her words aloud so that I could understand their meaning.  I just had not ever experienced anyone, let alone my friend, express dying in positive terms, as an event that could be seen as a positive experience.  I was having a hard time computing this information.

“Yes, she had made her peace with the Lord. Her kids all knew her wishes and she just drifted off. It was good.” My friend continued, all the while still smiling, but now looking off in the distance, back into her memory of the event.

I felt a look of surprise form on my face and I stood there, speechless. Here was my friend, who previously had told me that she just could not talk about death, speaking of dying in ways that I had never heard—as a thing of beauty and goodness, because of the way it happened.

I finally got out, “I think it is amazing that you can say it that way.”

“I’m so glad it was peaceful for everyone. She had a good death.” She responded, and we parted ways to continue our respective work.

It took hours for me to wrap my mind around what had happened standing there in the hall with my friend. Here was someone, who like the majority of Americans, was not comfortable even thinking about death and dying, but who was transformed. A change of heart and perspective occurred for her at a level that I had not anticipated could occur. In experiencing her friend’s death as “good”: a good experience for the one dying as well as the family, I felt an inkling of what dying could become if viewed through different lenses. If dying a good and peaceful death was the desired goal, and it was accomplished, everyone could feel a deep sense of peace—apparently a peace that defies our present understanding. I began to feel envious of my friend and my former patient, as though I had missed out on something very special because I had not been there for her dying. Perhaps, I can see this again, and be part of it—part of a good death and all of the peace it brings.

***

What if we could transform death in the social consciousness? What if death could be viewed as a very important and natural part of life, a positive event—and possibly even celebrated? What would be different if our personal and social goal was a good death for ourselves and those whom we love?

1. Advanced directives and advanced care planning would be embraced. Death would be planned for, as much as possible, because we would be anxious to ensure that it was a positive experience for all involved.

2. My husband believes we could send out hospice announcements, much like we send out other life event announcements: announcing to family and friends that a loved one has entered hospice—meaning the time has come to make amends, to heal old wounds, to share memories and to exchange love.

3. Instead of “I’m so sorry for your loss,” we would say” I’m so happy to hear that he had a good death.”

4. We would say and ask: “Where you able to be with him, to hold his hand?” “I’m so happy that all of his children and grandchildren could be with him.” “What were his last words?”

 

Those are my ideas. What are yours?

Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

www.oktodie.com

(Elements of the patient story have been altered to protect the privacy of the patient and family. Publication date has no relevance to the actual date of the patient encounter. As always, we express gratitude for the patients and families who teach us the lessons we write about.)

 

 

 

 

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"It's OK to Die" is a ground-breaking book filled with graphic stories straight out of the Emergency Room illustrating how most Americans are completely unprepared for death and dying. In response, the authors have created a unique and comprehensive guide urging EVERYONE to prepare in advance, to assure their own peace and to prevent the suffering of their loved ones.
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