What makes a “good” death?

Black Square Button with Corpse Tag IconHave you wondered about how you would like to die? Beyond the snap answers of our youth, such as “in my sleep” or the more risqué “in the saddle”?

My only remaining brother just died today, so in between the tears and the memories I’ve been thinking about how he went. And how the rest of the family went. Of mom, dad and four kids, just my sister and I remain. 

There’s the sudden, unexpected death that can’t be planned for. My “baby” brother Harold (53-years-old at the time) collapsed suddenly and was gone by the time they got him to the hospital.

There are “bad” deaths:

  • The angry and afraid death, where Alzheimer’s steals your mind and your memories and leaves you paranoid, afraid and flailing out at people. And taking way, way too long to die. My dad got that one.
  • There’s the long, lingering disease death where you stay in a hospital bed and wish to hell you were home or (often) even dead. This is the one I fear almost as much as the Alzheimer’s death.

Then there’s a death that looks remarkably stage managed. Mom and my last brother, Gordon, both had this death, a decade apart. Both had big in-the-hospital scares, where they were expected to die. Family flew to be with them. Both of them recovered quickly enough to walk out of the hospital the day after family arrived. So both were able to be present and really enjoy the family visits.

Then, a month or two later, both died quickly — and, I believe, painlessly. My brother fell and died instantly. My mother became “non-responsive” and died within a week without waking up.

If I got a vote, I’d vote to go like either of my brothers or like mom. But please, god, not like my father.

A good (!) lung cancer death

Some deaths that seem like they would be a nightmare, actually turn out to be peaceful. For example, you’d think lung cancer would be a long, lingering, horrible death. But for Gordon, it wasn’t.

Gordon smoked all his life, so he would have been hypocritical if he railed about the “unfairness” of his lung cancer. But he never did. I’ve never seen someone be so upbeat in the face of sure, coming-on-like-a-freight-train death.

  • He did radiation and felt fine.
  • He did chemo – but only because the #@**# regulations for receiving a biologic wouldn’t let him take that biologic until (and unless) he did chemo. The chemo made him not want to live.
  • But once he was off the chemo and onto the biologic – his natural, optimistic personality came back. He had another good two years from there.

When the biologic stopped working, and the hospital and his wife wanted to know his “end of life” instructions – I honestly think it took him by surprise. There was just no question in his mind but that he would recover. Which he did, at least temporarily. He got out of the hospital in a week, then lived another 2 months at home. Most important, Gordon wasn’t in pain. He was just tired. And got more tired. Until it was over.

There are interesting studies that show having a completely irrational belief that you will be fine is a key factor in you living longer. In Gordon’s case, the extra time was good time.

Does a spouse make dying easier or worse?

Both my brothers and my father were lucky enough to have wives who were there for them. Who were able to fight for them and look after them when it was required. While I think it is a net positive, there are negatives that come with it.

  • Good: They can make restricted life easier for you, and make it much more likely you can die at home.
  • Bad: They become more in charge than you are.
    • Will they try extraordinary measures to keep you alive? Measures that you might (strongly) prefer they not take? A friend of mine confessed to me he made the hospital take just those methods trying to keep his wife alive, even though she had told him (when she got the terminal diagnosis) that she did not want breathing tubes and all the rest he subjected her to.
    • Others worry about the opposite. Will the spouse take all the extraordinary methods you WANT them to?

What do you think? How do you want the end to come?


Author bio
Jen008_smallMarlene Jensen is a 71-year-old full-time marketing professor. Previously she was a VP at CBS and ABC and spent decades as an entrepreneur and pricing author/consultant. Sadly, none of these prepared her for the onslaught of marketers who now think her daily interests/needs consist solely of hearing aids, wheel chairs, adult diapers, medi-alert buttons, medications, and bath tubs you walk into.

2 thoughts on “What makes a “good” death?

  1. Great article with lots to think about. I liked the “Three Billboards” movie but I did not think Woody’s character, the cancer ridden sheriff who put a gun to his head, had a good death in my view. His choice, of course, but I would have wanted to continue as long as possible to savor more moments with wife and kids. People do not realize that physician assisted death is practiced all the time in America when the time is right for the patient to go peacefully with family there….morphine will cause death in a patient weakened by advanced disease. The heart and lungs stop working.

  2. How do I want the end to come, when it does? Quickly, in my sleep. But I’m not in a hurry. I’m not surprised your brother, just weeks away from death, had not even considered end-of-life details. Most people don’t. I was 66 before I finally got around to making up a Will, and that is NECESSARY to be sure the State doesn’t take everything. Your recommended book, Aging Alone, is excellent on all things like that plus health tips, financial tips and more. I love your Blpg!

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