What constitutes a good death?

My mother lived alone. She had had cancer. But she was having treatment and responding. Ultimately though she died at home, alone on her bed with a small basket of wet washing nearby that for all intents and purposes gave the appearance that she’d just laid down for a bit as she was prone to do, especially in the afternoons, and then she just died. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. Nor was it the treatment that she was having for cancer. She had been responding to treatment. There was a cause but that’s for another post, another set of questions and another set of issues to be looked at in more depth. Ultimately she died alone, at home in her own bed. And much as I angst over not having been there just on that very day as I was called to work on a weekend, I still feel that faced with the choices for dying in modernity, in the end she had a good death.   

It’s a question that dogs us all: what will be the cause and nature of my death? I’m so superstitious I can barely address this. I want to touch wood, kiss an icon, make the sign of the cross over myself and bless myself in a hundred new age and old age ways for tempting the devil and the reaper both into my life by even addressing this question and putting a form to the very words, the very idea.

But the longer you live, the more you wonder about it. Will I be hit by a car? Will I have a fatal motor vehicle accident? Will I contract a disease that will kill me slowly or one that will me quickly? Will I have a long life, or will I be taken ‘before my time’? Will I die of natural causes or will be killed in a much less natural way? Will I die in my sleep? Will it be in the early morning the worst time for a heart attack, or after the sun has set on the day and on a life beset by a stroke? Will it be agonising or simply a fugue state cushioned in my journey through modern day drugs? 

And what if there are treatments that may be available but cost the earth and will break the bank? And what happens when I reflect on the fact that I may have choices about treatment, about treating doctors, about sites of care, about medicines or participating in risky but hope-filled trials when others in the less developed world who already have led lives of suffering and misery have no such hopes?   

At the bottom of most of these questions is the little (big) voice asking, “Will I suffer”. And will those around me have to suffer my dying too as they try to continue with the business of getting on with living? Will dying change me? Or change those around me? And what sort of belief structure can I hang on to during this time? I’m not yet old enough to turn to established religion, but cannot embrace alternative philosophies that are not already a part of my own everyday life and culture.

Death, much like life raises more questions that can be answered quickly, readily or easily. As we cradle our newborns we wonder too about what lays before them, how we can help, assist in growth through nurturance, the efforts of love and care. What will be? This is a question that we ask at both ends of the spectrum.

Is death a dearth of life? Some would argue that we accept death into our lives when we cease to enjoy our lives, when we cease to take up new challenges, when we give up. There are degrees of this too, much like chronic disease, this does not just happen. When we give up our power, when we compromise, when we accept less than we know that we should, when we make do, are these not mini crucifixions? Are these not mini deaths foreshadowing the ultimate excursion into death itself? 

I feel morbid and maudlin for even allowing myself to entertain such thoughts. Our lives are so pro life, pro health, pro growth, pro improvement, pro betterment and heading towards self actualisation that we cannot even permit ourselves the opportunity to entertain thoughts of death. I’m not talking here of suicidality, of that sort of intention. Only the opportunity outside of a religious context to contemplate death and dying.

I hate this post. It is the very embodiment of my existential anxiety.

My training and experiences in anthropology tells me that death is done in vastly different ways across cultures. However there is a commonality of human experiences that speaks to us all and while we may not understand the cultural intricacies, we understands the experience of loss and change that death brings. And the experience of the multiple little deaths that accompany loss.   

It’s been over two years since my mother died. There is the marking of death too, the remembrance and memorialisation that accompanies death as it is marked through time. Am I doing this right? More angst, more people to please, more social failure. You have to wonder sometimes too, why it sometimes appears that people seem to care more about the circumstances surrounding a person in death than they ever possibly did about the circumstances of the person during life. As with many things, there is always an element of show, of appearance, of participating and enacting rituals not so much for oneself but to be seen to be doing so. This is part of the social contract that we share and are obliged to participate in with those in the communities of which we are an active part.

It’s the loneliness of the journey that is fearful too. It’s not like anything that we prepare for in any other part of our lives. In facing death we are alone. It’s not a team sport and the unknown factor that accompanies death makes it so frightening to contemplate. And unlike the journey into life where we are also unaccompanied, as adults we are thinking, feeling beings able to put our thoughts and feelings into words, into embodied loving and hating sensations as we struggle to make sense of death, and subsequently of life as well.

So what is a good death? Did my mother have one? Will I attain one? And how long as a society can we afford to not discuss death as a part of life?

I went to the cemetery recently to pay my respects. Mark the day. Show that she was in my thoughts. To show my children that this is what you do, and this is how you do it. You take flowers. You stay for a while. You talk to them, you think of them. You give them the news. You ask about how Heaven is. You tell them you miss them and you have a good cry. You clean up the small area like you once cleaned their homes. You arrange the flowers like you once set the table and laid out a deli spread for lunch with all their favourites. Now it’s a patch of grass and heart full of regrets. You miss them and yearn to remake the past but only have the materials and resources to model the future, to ensure that as we create the new we include the remade, remodelled failures and failings of the past into a form of betterment for the coming days ahead. And mum is a memory, mum is part of the past as in her final weeks she seemed to not be of this life, not of this time anymore but a being out of place not of or in this new century.   

My sister comes to meet me there sometimes too. But I feel that she likes hanging out with the dead far too much. As I recall the lunch spread she creates one then and there often in the company of my mother’s sister. They like to pay their respects to my mother, to her mother and to her grandmother, who all lay silently beneath the ground accompanied by nearby partners, parents and siblings. She knows where the funny, the strange and the terrifying graves are too. And she walks from one grave to the other, not scared to hang around in such a morbid place.

Perhaps I’m the one who’s odd. Hanging around the cemetery has a long tradition of women tending graves, tending to the needs of the dead. It’s a social place too and attending to graves can mean contact with the living too. Just like my sister and my aunt.  I come from a ong line of women who through generations have tended graves as they too prepared and were In turn prepared for death.  Perhaps too, if it’s part of your everyday life it’s less, less strange and the dead are not so much in the past tense.

So have I resolved the question of what constitutes a good death? Probably not, but like most of life it’s not necessarily about answering the question at the end, but all about how you got there.

Image credit: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/color-skulls.jpg


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