Good Deaths, Good Dying


The opening line of my friend’s sister’s obituary moved me with its gentle force. The sentence named the deceased, summarized a few of her accomplishments and then announced that she had, …”peacefully ended her own life at her home on May 20, 2014.” The photo shows an attractive woman brimming with life. She decided how to cope with her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease when diagnosed four years prior. From what her sister narrates, and another lovely photo captures the day prior to her death, this woman decided to have a good death.

Beloved sisters saying goodbye.

Beloved sisters saying goodbye.

A good death is not that easy to come by. I am no expert but I have been in the club of the dying for the last four years and I have watched quite a few deaths happen, more than quite a few. Labeling a death “good” or “bad” is risky but for me they seem to fall into those simplistic categories. A good death is the one we want. Right? We might vary in how we describe it with some imaging a dramatic ball of unanticipated flame as an ideal way to end it all but for most of us, the notion of having a period of closure with loved ones, then a selected few gathered around in a familiar and peaceful spot then taking your final breathes with no active pain or resistance seems ideal.

It should be easy to stage a good death but neither life nor death is always amenable to choreography. Barriers to a good death include individuals not able to express a concrete vision, usually because they don’t have a safe and encouraging circle within which to plan, let alone not living in a society that accommodates such choices – individuals, community and society.

I watch another friend journey towards a good death. In March 2014 it was not on the horizon. By April she had a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis and a “treatment plan” of “morphine and home hospice.” By the end of May she started on oxygen. Her communiqués throughout never feature her diagnosis or prognosis. A woman of few written words she focuses them as the below sample shares:

May 21, 2014 sunny day-planted snow peas and asters

May 26, 2014 sun peaking in and I have plants to get in dirt


I love watching her revel in every passing moment. Her cancer and approaching death she dismisses with a brief mention of her fear of pain as the cancer grows but her hospice team remind her of their skills and so she heads back out to the dirt, the view of the mountains and I appreciate that a good death is proceeded by a good dying support team.

Another day and another post will look at how a society can join this process.


14 responses »

  1. I think those of us with terminal illness should have the option of deciding when it’s time to stop the fight. There will come a time when we know there are no more treatment options and the only thing left is perhaps pain management, provided we have a doctor who isn’t afraid of our becoming addicted to pain meds while we’re dying. It takes courage to know when to give up. I only hope I will have that courage when the time comes. I’m glad there are role models out there who are willing to be public with their choice.

  2. I think it’s so important to discuss death and dying. Our society doesn’t really allow that and unfortunately, so many people at the end of their lives are silent about their wishes – too afraid to broach the subject with their loved ones. And their loved ones don’t bring it up in fear that the dying person may feel they’ve been given up on. The denial on both sides is so destructive. I’ve seen this way too often. We are all going to die and we all deserve a “good death”. I think it should include ending our own life if we wish and under the right circumstances. Thank you Marcy, for writing so beautifully about this.

  3. I agree, Ruth. The nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices is “working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life,” and, state-by-state, is making inroads to allow us to have death with dignity.

  4. Wow this post and the photo hits me hard today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Always a gift to receive these updates and join your world for a moment of my day. Much love.

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Witnessing a family member advance in Alzheimer’s has clarified my own desire not to have that end-of-my-life experience for myself or my family and loved ones. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I will watch for your next post, Marcy. I always learn from you!

  6. The friend you reference in the last story is indeed living/dying joyfully, gloriously, and so well loved. When I saw her earlier in the week, I was surprised by the large black bruise on her cheek, only to find on closer inspection, that it was dirt! The weather has been so accommodating, and she is soaking it in, planting, planting, planting! So many friends have rallied around; I am in awe of the magnetic spirit she bares that pulls us all in. She is living life, and coming to an end, all on her own terms. I should be so lucky!

  7. Thank you Marcy for writing about such a personal subject. It can be a difficult concept to understand initially; however, the closer I become to the end of my life, the more I appreciate the choices that are mine and mine alone to make. Thank you again for tackling yet another subject that is rarely explored.

  8. There is always so much unseen when looking at the end of life. I remember being so grateful for having the option to choose, and then holding onto life with a tenacity that surprised me. That was sixteen years ago. I am delighted that things have turned out well, and I appreciate the possibility that it might have been so different.

  9. That’s “our” Marcy. Continuing to advance healing, community and understanding as she has always, in my experience, done so well!

  10. engaging with the earth and with death seems about right. Not for everyone perhaps. What you draw out in the essay is the importance of finding what is right for you as an individual and to some extent for your extended community

  11. Thank you for a beautifully written piece addressing and showing the importance of each human being having a voice in deciding what is a “good death” for him or her, personally. I feel so blessed and very grateful that I live in a state (Oregon) that gives all beings that option through the Death with Dignity Act. I hope that we will continually see that option extended to others throughout our country.

    Thank you again for a beautifully uplifting piece.

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