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  • Writer's pictureDé Bryant, Ph.D.

Part II: What is a good death?

Here in the time after COVID many more of us have become familiar with the legalistic aspects of dying. We know that final directives instruct our loved ones or care givers on deciding key end of life decisions such as funerals and rites. We understand that a DNR communicates the individual's desire that no heroic measures be taken to prolong their physical life.

By necessity, our knowledge about such legalities has increased but that is not the same as having emotional resources to absorb the impact of these documents. What does one say next when a beloved – friend, relative, mentor, teacher, coach – announces their decision to refuse further medical treatments? 

Our first impulse may be to urge them to "keep fighting" or "stay hopeful" or "believe your miracle is coming." These exhortations may be well-intentioned and heartfelt but they may be cause a rift between us and our beloved. If  a DNR is in place, that means decisions have been made. By not accepting those decisions we discount the individual who made them. We blithely acknowledge that we cannot know what trauma they face and then tell them they are doing the wrong thing.

We do not intend to inflict harm. We want to show support and assurance that we will be there for moral and emotional support. At the same time, we are reminded of our own mortality. It may be too hard to hear that a person we revere and trust has accepted death if we equate that decision with weakness and failure.

Faith leaders and philosophers around the world instruct us that a good death is defined by a full life. I typed "affirmations, comma, living your best life" into my the search engine of  choice. The software delivered about 31,200,000 results (0.37 seconds). By contrast, I searched "affirmations, death" and received about 8,830,000 results (0.35 seconds). Facing death as an abstract philosophical concept is very different from measuring life in months, or days, or breaths. Affirmations to manage life's end are apparently in short supply.

Here is one from the website , The Order of the Good Death : I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.

My personal guiding thought about preparing to die is, Finish the work laid before you in this moment of your life.

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