What is a Good Death Experience?

What is a good death experience? How can the words good and death even be thought of in the same sentence you may wonder? Most people don’t even think about death until it hits close to home. But when death does come sneaking up on you, most just assume it will be the most devastating, overwhelming, saddest day of your life. And it will be. So how in heck can there be such a thing that could even be thought of as a good death experience? Everyone has their own version of what they want the scene to look like, given a choice, when it is their turn to face death. For some it may be dying at home, for another it may be at the hospital after all interventions failed, for another it may be with a party going on around them, in other words whatever you envision your death to look like.

I was not a hospice nurse when my dad died, and until my dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hadn’t given any thought to dying. My grandparents had both had sudden deaths well into their eighties and although I was very sad and surprised when it happened, I was also very accepting. But having a terminal illness is a completely different story. There are many days and weeks that go by that leave you worrying and afraid, and that is hard to wrap your head around. When my mother called me out of the blue one day to tell me my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and had been given six months to live, I was in shock. My dad had been sick off and on for awhile, but he was only 66, not the expected, accepted, old age range that one thinks of when facing death so up close and personal. My dad was definitely not accepting of his cancer being terminal. He demanded chemotherapy despite all his doctors saying that it would do nothing. He went into Boston to specialists who told him the same thing his local doctors did, that there was nothing more that could be done. He was dying. He was also angry and afraid, but at some point he also became accepting and agreed to hospice. As the weeks went by he became very introspective and often sat outside watching the cars and people walk by the house. He suddenly was commenting on the beauty of the leaves and the blueness of the sky. He certainly did not want to let go of this world and his family. Looking back, I think the only thing he really thought about and wanted was to die at home. When he became weaker the hospice nurse arranged for a hospital bed which my mom insisted  be put up beside her bed in their bedroom. No one in my family had ever had to care for a dying person in all the stages of decline they will go through. On the day my mother asked me to go to the store to buy adult briefs for my dad I cried all the way to the store and right up to the register. My mother insisted, for some reason to have my dad wear this long sleeved thermal shirt which took two of us to pull off his lethargic body and was even more of a struggle to replace with another one. My dad eventually slept more and more but the kitchen table always seemed to have family and friends gathered around to hear updates on his status and general conversation to fill in the heaviness of wondering how long all of this would go on. This certainly was not what anyone would call happy or good times. And then came the time, as it always does, when my dad’s breathing became very shallow and as he had been unresponsive for days, we thought this may be it. All my siblings were called and we stood around dad’s bed to let him know how much we loved him. We cried, we reached out to touch him, and we laughed as we remembered childhood stories. When my dad didn’t die as we had thought he might, my siblings went home. In the following hours my dad developed wet gurgle noises in his throat. When I heard the gurgling noises getting louder, even while sitting in another room, I went to his room to check, and looking into the darkened room, I saw my dad, unresponsive, lying in his hospital bed holding hands with with my mom who was reaching out from her bed. I backed out of the room as it felt like too personal a moment between them. It wasn’t too long after when my mother called out and my sister and I knew as we rushed back to their room that my dad was gone. As quick as that. It didn’t matter that it had been a little over five months that we had started this journey. It was over in a second. It had been a rollercoaster journey of emotions for sure, but as I look back on it I always end up reflecting on how, in the end, all that really mattered was that my dad was peaceful, without pain, and that he died hearing us all tell him how much we loved him.

That my friend is what I describe as a good death experience. It leaves me feeling at peace knowing he was at peace. To have gone through that whole tumultuous journey with him only made me appreciate the peaceful ending more. I have attended many deaths in my role as a hospice nurse since then, and I have seen other families achieve their own good death experiences. Many stand out in my mind; the daughter who played the most beautiful music as her father took his last breaths, the family that were all gathered around their dad’s hospital bed letting him know they would be alright and that they would never forget him as his breathing just slowly stopped, the woman who died with her dog snuggled up in bed beside her…..Or as I like to say they all died surrounded by love and what better way to go is there, really in the end?

Read here for some practical tips on caring for a loved one at home, and you can read more in My Favorite Memory of remembering childhood stories at my dying dad’s bedside here.

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