Wednesday, 27 September 2017

A Good Death

I recently heard that the husband of a friend had died and was privileged to read an account she wrote of his last day. It was extremely moving, as befits a writer, and I recalled the lovely things she had said about him when we last met. Their relationship had been long and sometimes stormy, she particularly regretted the time she had been hurtful to him and was happy that she had the time to speak to him about this and apologise.

And now the end had come, as she knew it must. Her words spoke of their love and closeness, the joy of friendship and family and an acceptance of the ending of a life. As I read what she had written I thought 'That sounds like a good death.' An expression I hadn't thought of for many years, in fact I have no idea who I got the idea from at all. It got me thinking about what a 'good death' is and thinking about the various ways that people who I loved have died. Also I confess it had me thinking about my own mortality and what I would consider to be a 'good death.'

My father died suddenly in his bed while my mother, who was disabled, slept in her chair downstairs. This was not a good death for him or for her. Because it was sudden and unexpected none of us had the time to prepare or say goodbye. For weeks after he died I found myself replaying my last conversation with him, desperate to remember if I told him I loved him. Of course, the more I thought about it the more confused my memory became and it all got rather distressing. I know intellectually that my father knew I loved him in the same way that I know he loved me. But the fact that he may have died before I could say it one more time hurt me for the longest time.

My mother was bereft at his death and died herself a few months later. She died in hospital, alone early one Monday morning. Again, not a good death for my sister and myself. The guilt that we both felt at not being with her at the end is still raw and brings tears. I know I told her I loved her but that is still not enough. She was alone and that is not my definition of a good death.

I don't often think about my own death except when I'm planning an extravagant funeral and winding my son up about the music and mourners I expect! Yet I have to be honest that I don't want to die alone in a hospital bed like my mother. When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought about death. Even though I knew I had a very low grade cancer and it would be totally treated with surgery I had moments when I thought 'But what if ...?' The fear of cancer and death was soon pushed aside as the practical matters of undergoing surgery and recovering kicked in. But I did have those thoughts, even if I never got as far as thinking about the specifics.

How many of us do think about our won death when still healthy and relatively youthful? Those are thoughts for another day, another year, another decade ... please God. So reading about the last day of my friend's husband has given me the opportunity to think about how I would like to die eventually. And I'm not trying to be morbid in any way, it has been an interesting experience, an eye opener too. In the Western World we don't talk about death or think about it until someone dies. Then it's too late to do anything about how they died. Death is a fact of life. It's the one experience each and every one of us shares.

I hope and pray that when my time comes, when the time comes for all those I love, that we get good deaths. That we get the chance to say 'I love you', that we get to say what we need to before we depart. And that those who are left behind have nothing but happy memories with no guilt or regret.

With love to Paula and her loved ones.

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