Dying well for me means being ready at every moment for it to be my time to die and accepting it with grace and appreciation for this life I lived.
In writing this, I realized I kept coming back to what I could control. What does “dying well” mean to me? I’d love for it to mean, in addition to other factors, that my dying is somewhat on my terms, and that I am warm, safe and clean, physically. But I recognize that all this is beyond my control. So what can I control? My spiritual core – my emotional well-being, my views of pain and death – is within my control. Can I control my thoughts? I rather doubt that I could in my last days; I expect I may be slightly in and out of my mind on morphine in my last hours.
My emotional well-being springs from my spiritual core. So, spiritually, dying well means I have said what I needed to say to people who can hear me and have walked away from those who would not; it means I’ve let go of anger, and have embraced love for all beings; it means that I have come to terms with regret and learnt that my imperfections are what make me perfect.
My views of pain and death depend, also, spring from my spiritual core: Pain is temporary and it is a component of this physical body, which is also temporary. If I can view pain as an experience separate from my mind, I expect my final days and hours would go much easier. My view of death is healthy: I am not afraid to die. How I die is another matter entirely: I am terrified of certain types of death, and it is part of this human experience to want to cling to this life.
All this thinking and overthinking and answering myself begs the simple question, Would I be ready to die today if it were to happen? This, then, is our challenge if we are prepared to accept it: Living every day – every hour, even – as if it might be our last.
In a nutshell, and regardless of my circumstances, dying well, for me, means that I stand patiently at the door of transition, eagerly waiting to step into the other side of this mystery.
Dying well includes living well, well, good enough.
Having things in order, conversations of all sorts had. Having the everything in order can allow for the unexpected death to be as good as it could be. My family would have the information needed to make decisions for me and have all they need accessible.
If I were to have a terminal diagnosis, I would hope to use the remaining time to be alive, awake, and fully engaged. I would hope to say all I needed to say and share what I could with my family, friends and maybe the community. I would hope to be comfortable and at peace. Location would depend on my age and my children’s needs. Ideally I would have enough resources to have my life lived out at home.
Really dying well has so much to do with loving, being present and knowing that we are really going to die. Being prepared to love and to ultimately die.
A good death is when a person dies knowing and being oneself, wherein the person dying and those impacted by and aware of the death are consciously attentive to the lessons held within the circumstances and experience.
There is a popular and often talked about idea that one could have a good or bad or some other kind of death. Certainly in a sense there may be a death any given person would not wish to experience — one by violence, or uncontrolled pain, for example — but this thought, anxiety, concern or abstraction is from a presupposition that that there is a separation between our dying process from our living, that we have an opportunity to die in some particular other way than is expressive of our life and its instruction. Truly the question of what it means to “die well” begs a more immediate question — what does it mean to live well?
If we understood the process unfolding during a death, and the opportunity therein, it wouldn’t lead to a set of advanced directives and bright pink MOLST form, but instead simply to ourselves and our current living.
In one sense, there isn’t the interval that many imagine (or hope? or fear?) between how we live and how we die — the latter is an expression and extension of the former. So the best way to prepare for an appropriate dying process is in fact to reflect on and invest in our living. This is a key teaching instrument in most of the dominant religious systems and philosophic traditions around the world.
The valuations on what would make a good or bad death are instructive of our own lived values. What we hope or fear can lead us to deeper understanding of ourselves, of existential questions that structure our life.
That being said, there is a special opportunity at the time of death for uplift, healing, wholeness and self-knowledge. There is not one set of circumstances that yield this opportunity, but can be found at almost any time of death.
The question of a good death/bad death is usually posed by a person thinking of their own future death, or who is with someone else actively in the process, and seems to often refer less to the afflicted and more to the questioner, i.e. “what would make me feel not fearful, not anxious, to feel resolved and at peace, when I imagine who I’ll be at the time of my own death or am confronted with it in another?” This is so abstract with many unknown factors that sometimes gives people anxiety simply trying to construe. The idea asked about a “good death” has often come to mean something to a witness — that “I would feel so much better if this dying person acknowledges explicitly that they are dying and expresses physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, resolve and completeness.” With the rarity that remains for so many of us in life, how can we ask it at death?
A better question might be, “in what way can I imagine my current self’s character and inner development most appropriately expressed in a scenario of death?”, or “what qualities or disciplines could I develop now that would allow me the death I imagine being at peace with?” and to let those reflections lead us to adjusting our life.
If we are with another person through their dying — having secured the best possible pragmatic circumstances — another way of extracting a meaning (not a valuation like good/bad) is to be with them in total faith that their life, their experience, their illness or event causing their death, is the most appropriate expression and extension of the lessons that person and those impacted or aware of the death are learning. And then to reflect on what in us desires the experience to be anything other than what it is.