A Good Death

What is a good death anyway? The word in Greek for good is “eu” and the word for death is “thanatos”, so in Greek this becomes “euthanasia”.  But “eu” also means easy – thus, often people think of a good death being synonymous with an easy death.  Of course, in our current culture, that word euthanasia is steeped with controversy and moral pull, leaving very little that is easy about the word.

I think for many, the idea of a good death does encompass something about easy; no pain, no suffering, no struggle.

This was not the case for Frank. Although this elderly gentleman had professed a readiness to die when he entered our hospice house, newly diagnosed with cancer, certain clues pointed elsewhere.  After about a week of avoiding sleep at all cost, I knew something was amiss. His avoidance of slumber was classic, he refused to get into his bed and spent 24 hrs a day in a recliner. He also, like my own 3 year old at home trying to avoid sleep, would continue to talk even when no one was in the room. The incessant speech was certainly meant to keep his brain from nodding off.

I headed into the room, with a mystery to solve. He had professed no fear in dying, so why did his behavior scream avoidance?  I played the normalcy card, speaking of patients in the past who had been afraid to sleep because they assumed they would then die. This struck a nerve, and in my waiting silence he confessed.

“I admit it. I am afraid….” then a long pause, and finished with “afraid of it being too easy.” What came next were tears, for the fear wasn’t in death, but in a death without struggle.  He felt that dying in his sleep would be a disaster, that dying with pain medicine easing his struggle to breath would be cowardly.  Then he told a story.

He was a veteran in WWII and had rescued a man who had been burnt, ending up injuring himself in the process. He found himself in a military hospital next to this man he rescued. Charred, with flesh falling off, this man looked Frank in the eye and told him, “You SOB, you better survive and be here in the morning”.  Frank made the same valiant demand back. The entire night, he heard the moans and groans and cries of the burnt man. As morning dawned the agony filled cries ceased and nurses came, pulling a sheet over the mans face as he took his last breath.

Frank looked at me, and no further words needed to be said. That was a good death to Frank.  That was the noble death Frank was looking for.

The story and Frank’s personal ideal of what “eu  thanatos” was for him, explained a lot of the decisions he’d been making while in our hospice house. He felt very guilty in the revelation. I reminded him that our job isn’t necessarily to change who people are, but simply listen so we can understand who they are.

What’s your definition of a good death? Is it easy? Is it noble? Is it going out with a fight? Something to ponder.

Art work:  The Soldier (1538) from “The Dance of Death” by Hans Holbein

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