The concept of a “good death” means different things to different generations.
Ages past, it may have meant dying on the battlefield, or while working the fields of your land. In the not-so-distant past, it meant living long enough to glimpse immortality in the eyes of your grandchildren. Modern generations have put so much value on life that we have eschewed the concept of a good death in favour of painful life-extending procedures. In our fear of death, have we allowed subsisting to take precedence over living?
In a 2013 Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal, author Katy Butler writes: “Dying moved from the home to the hospital, obliterating Western death rituals, transforming the meaning of the body, and changing the way families, doctors, nurses—and even the dying themselves—behaved at the deathbed. Family members who once wiped the brows of the dying were restricted to visiting hours. Often there were no ‘last words’; because the mouths of the dying were stopped with tubes and their minds sunk in chemical twilights to keep them from tearing out the lines that bound them to Earth.”
As a society, we’ve transformed the natural process of dying into something clinical and impersonal. Thankfully, the pioneering boomer generation is setting out to change that. To them, a good death is more about a good life — and that often means making the most of palliative care to live better in fewer days, and then die with dignity.
Today marks the second anniversary of my father’s death from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and five months since the passing of my boyfriend’s mother, Sharyn, following a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Both experiences taught me that while it’s a gruelling process helping a person to die, there’s something hauntingly beautiful about it as well.
I come from a large French-Irish Catholic family, with all the craziness you’d expect from that combination. Like many large, crazy families, we always knew we had something special. We knew we were strong, having come together in loss twice before with the passing of my maternal grandparents. But the love and light that filled the waiting room and my father’s hospital room during the final stretch of his battle was one of the most powerful and transcendent experiences of all of our lives. Even the doctors and nurses couldn’t help but comment — they felt it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if that deep well of love and light blessed and comforted every suffering soul in the hospital that night — it was that tangible and palpable. The highly aggressive nature of my father’s cancer robbed him of a choice to die at home, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t experience a good death. Together, we filled my father’s final hours and the moment of his passing with the kind of loving, supportive vigil that a hospital death often prohibits. What a gift. Not everyone exits this world with as much dignity and love as my father did.
In Sharyn’s case, she made the brave decision not to continue with chemotherapy after one round, and to commence palliative care at home. Our first frantic, desperate — and ultimately, selfish — thought was: “But…you’ll die.” She could see it in our eyes, and she apologized to us because she felt like she was giving up the fight. That was a sobering and transformative moment for all of us who comprised her core support circle – because she wasn’t giving up on life; she was choosing to live it on her terms, and to die with dignity. She may have been fighting a losing battle with cancer, but every day, she won the war to live, laugh and love in spite of it. And you know something? Her light never dimmed. She was, quite simply, luminous. I often glanced at her and marveled over how good she looked. Dylan Thomas’ poetic line “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light” perfectly captures Sharyn’s battle. She raged. But she did so with quiet strength, humility and grace. Her light transcended the pain; as it now transcends her death.
Sharyn and I on the morning that she passed away
Sharyn ended her life as she lived it – on her terms, in her own home, surrounded by her closest circle of friends and family. The absence of tubes and monitors gave each of us the opportunity to lie in bed beside her and hold her – she was rarely without a pair of hands or a soft voice to offer comfort through the pain. The raw beauty of it shook us all. It hearkened back to the days of our ancestors, when sitting at a deathbed was as spiritual an experience for the living as for the dying.
For some of us, death comes too suddenly or violently for choice to factor in. When there is a choice, for me, there’s only one – a good death.