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What a Good Death is Not

departure directions Sep 11, 2017

When you think about that inevitable day when your life as you know it will come to an end, you probably hope you’ll have a good death, right? But what does that mean?

In our workshops we often bring our awareness to the reality of our shared mortality by asking people to name their hopes and fears about their own inevitable death. People say things like, they want to die suddenly in their sleep; they fear being a burden, and they fear losing control over their body and their lives. Others, want to be sure they have time to say their goodbyes and they welcome the idea of a slower death, one in which they are conscious and surrounded by loved ones. Most people will say they just don’t want to be in (physical) pain.

While you may argue that there is no universal definition of a good death, Stephen Jenkinson—whose workshop I had the privilege of attending this summer—has strong ideas of what a good death is not.

The four-day retreat was titled the same as Jenkinson’s book, Die Wise. He explained that some people have mistaken the title to be “Die Wisely,” but in fact, if it were written that way it would imply a way of dying. His intent is deliberately to refer to the person, and not the act of dying. The emphasis as I understand it, is to focus on who we are when we die, and not any particular way of dying. He said, “If you have any intention of dying well, then focusing on your dying will not get you there.”

“The manner of your dying will be the most autobiographical act you’ll ever make.” – Stephen Jenkinson

One of the many takeaways, was that if you think you can plan for your ‘good death’ and then wait for the terminal illness to work on it, it will be too late. After working with hundreds of dying people at Toronto’s largest palliative-care centre for 20 years, Jenkinson concluded that people tend to die in the manner of their living. He believes that the manner of our dying will be the most autobiographical act we’ll ever make.

This would be great news if you were rooted in a culture where living, loving and dying were all things you learned, lived, and considered equally sacred. But if you’re not from that culture, you’re probably from a death-phobic and death-denying culture where death is seen as either a blessing or a punishment.  

Jenkinson notes that in his experience, dying is often scaled down to include only immediate family members and close friends, while the outer circles are not allowed in. Not only does our sense of community tend to get very small, there’s also a premium placed on being calm, sedate, in control, reassured, and positive.

Quality of your approach

What does dying well look like then? It’s not governed by how much pain we’re in or how much fear we have or don’t have. Those are elements that are expected to be there. The real honourable dying according to Jenkinson, is the one determined by how we respond to the pain and to the grief and to the utter lack of shared vocabulary and language of the imagination that we can bring to bear upon this momentous and mysterious life event. Dying is bigger than anything we’re able to think about so, as Jenkinson said, “let’s not melt the mystery until we feel better.”

Jenkinson professes that it’s the quality of our approach to, or our courtship with our dying that will determine what we’ll experience. Dying wise means seeing our dying as neither a punishment nor a blessing. Rather we should come to our dying as part of our culture and our story, not the ending to it.

What about you?

Have you been witness to what you consider a good death? What made it so?

What is your approach to death and dying?