A Good Death

(This post first appeared on BlogHer.com)

The father of a friend of mine died recently.  Here’s how it happened.  She was driving home from a board meeting thinking about the finishing touches that she needed to put on a grant.  Her cell phone rang.  It was her brother telling her that her father wasn’t feeling well.  He’d been a bit under the weather.  She rushed to his home.  He was talkative and joking.  A couple of hours later, he had a heart-attack and died surrounded by his children and other family members. 

He died the way he wanted to,” she said.  “He was very vocal about not wanting to suffer or be a burden to the family.  He was adamant about not having a long, slow death caught in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease like his wife had been.”  While my friend M misses her father dearly, she, too, is glad that he had “a good death.”

I think about death every day but not morbidly.  I think about it mostly because I read obituaries in the paper.  Reading obituaries introduces me to people I’d never have known about otherwise.  There are so many wonderful people in the world.  Some of them have great accomplishments and have won accolades.  Others of them were ordinary people whose small accomplishments supported their families and their communities. 

Obituaries often tell how people lived their lives.  One woman who’d loved to garden was restricted in her nineties to a wheelchair and so she had her garden beds raised so that she could tend to them from the wheelchair.  Another woman taught into her eighties and continued to tutor after that.  A gentle-man worked at his law office every day until he died.  A 19-year-old felled by ovarian cancer spent her last months cramming all sorts of loving activities in and awakened in her family a zest for living.  While the deaths of children and young people sadden me deeply because they are or feel before their time, they are no less instructive about how to live.

Marilyn Johnson, a former obituary writer, celebrates the cult and culture of obituaries in her riveting book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries.

There are dozens of examples of inspired obituaries as well as stories from the annual conference of obituary writers.  An example from the book shows that obituaries can be humorous:

“Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B.”

Another book about obituaries has gotten great reviews, although I haven’t read it and therefore can’t personally vouch for it: OBIT. Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People who Led Extraordinary Lives by Jim Sheeler

A good death.  If I must die (I say this seriously because up until about 10 years ago, I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t going to die) I hope to have a good death. Would that it be peaceful.  Would that it also be scandal-free.  Recently, certain high profile deaths also got me to thinking about the notion of having “a good death.”  A refrain from a hymn often sung in the church I grew up goes like this:

I wouldn’t be a sinner.
Tell you the reason why
When my master called me
I wouldn’t be ready to die.

For some people, the ways they die overshadows who they were and what they may have accomplished.  The deaths of singer, Michael Jackson, actor David Carradine, and Anna Nicole Smith, struck me in this way.  Mr. Carradine’s death was not a good death at all caught as he was in a private sexual act that to my mind is unseemly for any age but most especially for a man in his seventies.

His and other “not good deaths” get me to thinking about things I’ve done that I wouldn’t want to be my parting act or part of my lasting legacy.  (I dare not share them here.) 

2009 is the 40th anniversary of the publication “On Death and Dying” written by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, psychiatrist, who passed in 2004.  This groundbreaking classic and best-seller outlined the “five psychological stages of dying” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Throughout the 1970’s, Dr. Kübler-Ross led hundreds of workshops and spoke to standing-room-only crowds throughout the world.  Always outspoken, her work challenged the medical profession to change its view of dying patients and advanced many important concepts such as living wills, home health care, and helping patients to die with dignity and respect. 

In preparing my living will and health care proxy, I had a conversation with my sister and found out that she wants all life-extension methods employed while I want no extraordinary measure taken if there is not chance for me to have quality of life.  “I plan to wear out, not rust out” my sister always says as she lives with the demands of lupus. 

BlogHer contributing editor, Megan, on “Sometimes Out of Death Comes Life: Happy Birthday Megan’s Minute” writes about a friend’s death that inspired her to start blogging as a way of sharing her writing.  Another post on BlogHer, End-of-Life Care: Working within the Laws Nature by Caregiving begins with these profound words:

“This is hard to hear, but important to know: When caring for an aging relative, you are helping a family member die well. The process of helping someone to die well begins early on in your caregiving journey. It begins when you first hear a diagnosis. Or, when you first notice that your mother just isn’t able to keep up the house as well as she used to. Or, when you celebrate your grandmother’s 95th birthday and wonder: Where did the time go?.”

Angelina on her blog, Dustpan Alley, asks How do you Mourn Death?

She writes:

It also reminds us that no one lives forever.  We will all have our time in the sun and then we will move on.  This is a non-denominational truth.  It 100% doesn’t matter what your spiritual beliefs are: we all die and whatever happens in that instant isn’t about god or atheism or beliefs.  Death does not require you to believe anything.  It just is.  It is.

And continues:

The message of life and the message of death are almost indistinguishable.  Like identical twins who learn to speak and dress differently but who, when stripped down to bones, were still split from a single cell.  Life and death were split from a single cell too.

I apologize for the rambling nature of this piece but I am now ready to go back to my original point – a good death – I hope I have one and I hope that I will be ready when my time comes.




About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

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