A Good Death: good for whom?

gravestoneThere’s a lot of death about this week. I suppose in one sense there always is, but this weekend I have been moved by two people I follow on Twitter. One is @GrangerKate who has become better known through a piece in The Times this Saturday, as a doctor with cancer who plans to Tweet her own death. The other you almost certainly won’t know, she is @mollybear68 – a gorgeous collie dog just diagnosed with untreatable cancer of the spleen and lungs, whose owner is understandably devastated at contemplating her imminent loss*.

Death is such a mystery. We don’t talk about it much, except in a jokey way, until faced with it in ourselves or in those we love. My earliest experience of death was through animals. I grew up on a smallholding where death was part of everyday life. Calves and sheep going to slaughterhouses; hens being massacred by foxes; guinea-pigs, budgies, cats, and dogs succumbing to accidents or falling as road casualties – a lucky few dying of ‘natural causes’.

My first experience of human death was when a friend’s father (a farmer) died of septicaemia. I was about 18 and utterly lacking in understanding. I had no idea what my friend was going through, and I was unable to offer any useful support, yet surprisingly we remain friends even now. As a physiotherapist I worked in intensive care for 6 years in a general unit. This was in the days predating specialisation, so our patients could be of any age and with any condition – surgical, medical, accident victim, overdose, neurological, orthopaedic – we took them all. One in four of them would die, on average. So I became ‘used’ to death, shored up by colleagues and friends, alcohol and appalling black humour.

Then one day when I was working on the unit my bleep went off – an outside call – it was my mother telling me my brother’s body had been found….the rest was a blur. I discovered I wasn’t ‘used’ to death at all and my world imploded. Since then, I have lived through the deaths of both my father and my mother (about 13 years apart), two cats aged 19 and 18 respectively and a cockerel called Fowler. Every experience of death is different for me, and none of us can understand how it is for someone else.

To return to the start – May 13th-19th has been designated ‘Death Awareness Week’ and people have been talking a lot about ‘a good death’, but good for whom? Good for the person dying, good for the ones left behind, or good for health professionals? I wonder if some of the current flurry of blogs about the desirability of ensuring a good death, are as much to assuage the fears of the living as the dying.  I am still uncertain in my own mind as to whether death is kinder when it comes unexpectedly, or when you have time to make plans and say your goodbyes. In my own experience, nothing prevents the all-consuming pain and guilt that ensues in the aftermath of losing someone you love. But for the ones who must stay behind and take the longer road, there is some comfort in feeling you have done all that is possible to ease the transition from life to death. Unfortunately, we are not able to ask the dead if this makes it any better for them.

*Molly the collie died Monday 13th May 2013

Addendum

My late mother’s favourite quotation comes from John Donne (1839): “No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Meditation 17)

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Related Articles

End-Of-Life: A Good Death by Brian Alger here

Dying Matters by Elin Roddy here

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5 Responses to A Good Death: good for whom?

  1. Brian Alger says:

    Hello Anne,

    I enjoyed reading this article and have included a reference to it on my own site. The issue of what constitutes “a good death” is an important one. I like your probe, “good for whom?” I have also experienced some significant losses in my own life, and fully agree that each individual experience of death is unique. Indeed, the pain and guilt of losing a loved one is one the most overwhelming experiences I know.

    Thanks for a great article.

    Brian

    • annebruton says:

      Hello Brian
      Thank you for your kind comments. I’m a fairly inexperienced blogger, but will try to add a link from that piece to your own website, to direct others towards you.
      Best wishes,
      Anne

  2. Pingback: End-of-Life: A Good Death

  3. Hi Anne,
    Thanks for your post which I think raises really important questions. It also resonates very strongly with me. I was lucky enough to have all my grandparents live to their old age (89, 92, 93 and one still going strong at 93) and I often think that if it weren’t for our family pets dying I would have had no real experience of personal loss and grief until now (in my 30s).

    I too am comfortable with death, in the way that I’m not scared to talk about it and confront it – my post for Dying Matters week last year is here http://wp.me/pOLqj-v5 and I thought I was ready for my Dad’s death, as ready as I could be given he was terminally ill. When it came to Dad dying, even with all the warning we had and preparation we’d done, nothing could prepare us for that experience. I will be eternally grateful for the support we received from the hospice team, GP and various other professionals who supported my Dad to have an incredibly peaceful death, at home, where he wanted to be, and also supported his family members to share that with him. I’ve written a (long) post about it here if you’re interested http://wp.me/pOLqj-zQ

    In a couple of days it will be six months since Dad died, I feel a loss that is very real and painful still, but I sometimes muse that it’s a selfish loss. I grieve for what could have been and for those of us left to get on with life as we always did, but with a Bobby J shaped hole in it. One thing I am confident about is that we could not have done more to support Dad’s death, and that is a constant comfort. Thanks again for posting, George @georgejulian

    • annebruton says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Perhaps a ‘good’ death is one which leaves those left behind feeling as you do, that nothing more could have been said or done. Thank you for sharing your experiences. From my own I know that 6 months is nothing – still very raw. The pain of loss never goes away, but somehow it slips backwards a little – although it can push itself forwards again at any time. My brother died 30 years ago, but hardly a day goes by when he isn’t in my thoughts.

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