You may have heard this term 'good death' get thrown around by people in the death and dying industry. You may be wondering what that means, all deaths are the end of a life, how could that ever be 'good'?
The answer is both obvious and not. A good death refers to when someone is fully prepared to die and their vigil is beautiful and healing for the surviving family.
I have known personally people who have had the elusive good death, the young girl who I named this website for had one. She was prepared, her family who was fully involved in her care while also giving her the autonomy to control her care before her 18th birthday. When it was obviously the end, her doctor wanted to try increasingly aggressive treatments to save her. She was tired and she was ready to let go. Already with a breathing tube, she could not talk but was conscious while the doctor talked to her mother across the bed. She started using sign language to enact her living will. He ignored her gestures so she kicked him. It still makes me smile to think back to her dying and still willing to literally kick her way out. She was allowed to die on her terms, the mechanical support that was assisting her to breathe was turned off and she was released from her corporeal body. She had written a poem to be included with her memorial service meant to soothe her family and friends, although 25 years later it still reduces me to tears.
A mutual friend also had Cystic Fibrosis. He did not have a good death. His death is one of the reasons I do this. He had had a lung transplant and although he got a few more years than he would have, he developed cancer and then some neurological issues. Ultimately he developed an infection that was medication resistant and his blood pressure dropped below levels that he could receive dialysis. He died scared and one of his last sentences was "Dad, I don't want to die". At his funeral his father wept on my shoulder reliving his last conscious moments that his son was scared and there was nothing left to do but watch him die.
Through these two stories we can look at the idea of a good death. There was significant grief from the loss of both people who were taken when they were far too young. One in her teens, prepared for the end and ready to make the journey on and one in his twenties, terrified of what the end meant. These could be the result gender, religion or a myriad of other reasons but at the end of life it comes down to fear or acceptance. When you are facing death you are, of course, concerned about how the survivors will cope without you as well as with your loss. If you are a parent, you are thinking about how your children will cope with the loss of a parent and if you are young, how your parents will carry on after losing a child. As humans we are community oriented and we all have those people we worry how they will handle going on after a significant loss.
How can we achieve the 'good death'? What can we change about our lives that the end won't mean terror and instead we can bravely move on to whatever the next journey has in store for us and also ease the grief of those left behind? This isn't something I can answer for everyone, it will be about your religious beliefs and your family dynamic and a thousand other factors. However, normalizing death will be a big part of achieving it. In our modern culture we have sanitized death and removed it from our everyday lives. Our elders are not dying in their homes, our homes are no longer multi-generational and we don't see the natural progression of life to its end. Death is taboo although it happens to us all, most of us have never witnessed someone's last breaths. None of us get out of this alive and most of us are scared of what the end will hold.
Lets open up about death, our fears, our beliefs, and our experiences with grief and loss. Lets plan our deaths so we can examine our own fears. Write your vigil and your eulogy. If you have a plan for your vigil and your funeral you can make a plan about how you want to live your life more fully. If you can look back on your life and see you have accomplished the important things in life you can find peace with the end.
Making a plan for your death, unless you are actively dying, means you have the opportunity to reflect on your life and the chance to create the life you are proud of when the end comes. Having the life you are proud of will help you have that good death. Making a vigil plan or writing a eulogy will help you focus on your priorities and be sure to achieve the things that are most important to you.
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.