What is a "Good Death"?
What is a “good death”?
That is a question that every living person must eventually contemplate. Is a quick death, a sudden demise by a heart attack, some accident or by violence or intent, such as a self-inflicted gun shot to the head really a good death? Or is death which is delayed long enough to allow one to have the life issues settled and to see and relate to family for the last time good? Or is a death which comes on painless and without the burden of discomfort and anxiety also a good death? Each person may have a different view. Certainly, physicians should have the goal to understand and attempt to provide a good death for their patients when it comes. It is their professional obligation to the patient. But is a “good death” something that the doctor can define or must it come from the patient’s own lips? Often, physicians are unaware of how their patient might set the definition.
Tony Back, MD writing in the Ethics of Medicine End-of-Life Issues of the University of Washington School of Medicine sets some guidance for medical students and physicians. Amongst other advice he suggests:
In caring for a person who is dying, knowing what would make the experience of dying "good" is an important goal for physicians and other members of the care team. I find it doesn't take fancy techniques-you just need to be sincere and patient and interested. Listen more and talk less. Try asking something like, "Knowing that all of us have to think about dying at some point, what would be a good death for you?" What people choose when they think about a good death for themselves is often beyond what medicine can provide-for instance, an affirmation of love, a completion of important work, or a last visit with an important person. As a physician, I can't always make those things happen. But I can help the dying person get ready-and in this way, contribute to a death that is decent.
What is your view of what would constitute a good death for you?
I would like to end this introduction with another way of looking at a “good death” but looking at death after one dies. It comes in the form of the lyrics of a song written by Lee Hays of the Weavers, famously sung by Pete Singer and immortalized by a film by that name. ..Maurice.
If I should die before I wake
All my bone and sinew take
Put them in the compost pile
To decompose a little while
Sun, rain and worms will have their way
Reducing me to common clay
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishes in the seas
When corn and radishes you munch
You may be having me for lunch
Then excrete me with a grin
Chortling, There goes Lee again
'Twill be my happiest destiny
To die and live eternally
Lee Hays, 1981