I wrote the following story about a “good death” in May of this year, a mere month before my 16-year-old son died in a horrific car accident. Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. A “good death” means more to me now than ever before.
For so many, death is something they fear more than anything else in this world, so how could the term a good death even come from one’s lips?
I think one can only understand the meaning of the term, if they have made their life’s passion come true by caring for terminally ill patients, or have experienced a loss of a close loved one, especially those who have received the gift of helping someone take their journey home with the help and support of hospice. I am grateful to have personally experienced the latter.
Although I wish I hadn’t had to lose my dear mom, I wouldn’t be able to speak on this topic authentically and share what has become my passion and life’s work, without that experience.
A good death just doesn’t start as a person is transitioning and leaving their body, a good death starts when we become aware that our death is upon us, whether weeks, months or longer. At that moment when we accept that we are in fact going to die, and choose to now live, yes, live every day to the fullest, for however many more sunsets remain. Then we truly begin on our journey towards a good death.
For my mom and her family, the good death began the moment the oncologist confirmed and was honest about the prognosis. Yes, it did take some serious direct questions to pry it out of him, he was teetering on “well chemo may help” and, “we could try this,” before mom told him to not mince words and to treat her as though she was his mom. He took a deep breath, and said, “you’ll need 3 months to recover from the life-saving surgery we just performed, before you can start the chemo or the chemo itself will kill you.” He paused as if he had never had to tell anybody before in his career, “You are dying.” Mom looked at him straight in the eyes and asked, “How long before the tumor returns and I die?” He whispered; “60 days.” As my legs buckle and I lean into the wall for support, I hear my mom take a deep breath and say, “Kids we have two months to share together and get some things done, and sorry doc, looks like you won’t be making any money in this case, but thank you for your honesty.”
The next step in the journey was having the hospital social worker treat me with such compassion and honesty about what I was venturing on when I arranged to take my mother home with me to care for her in her last days. She fully educated me on hospice and its philosophy and what responsibility I had in honoring my mother’s wishes for a peaceful death, one with dignity and with only the use of comfort measures.
Although I had witnessed other friends and family members die on hospice, this was altogether different when it was my mom and I was taking power of attorney of her healthcare decisions, thereby vowing to honor her directives.