Does Everyone Deserve a Good Death?


I hadn’t planned on reading Living Thoughtfully Dying Well by Glen E. Miller, MD (Herald Press, 2014), and I almost stopped when I read this sentence in his introduction (page 20):

Everyone deserves a good death surrounded by loved ones in an atmosphere of peace and serenity.

“Deserves”? I wondered, as I thought of loved ones dying from a sudden heart attack or in fatal car accidents, of the many people who have died in war or by other violent means. I had been very close with my mother and my in-laws in their final years, and well remember many in their care homes who did not have family close by or perhaps at all, or who were estranged from them. If everyone “deserves” a good death, there are many who are missing out, and I wondered at the sense of entitlement in the word.

Still I kept reading — one of our church Connection Groups had chosen to study the book together and had asked me to lead Chapter 4, so I planned to read at least that far. Once I got past the introduction, I appreciated the author’s own story, and by page 32, I found myself agreeing with his definition of:

a good death which reflects the values and theology that have guided your life.

That resonated with me much more than the book’s earlier assumption that everyone “deserves” a peaceful death surrounded by loved ones, and this later definition seemed to allow more room for individual variations. For one man I know, being free of pain was an important value, while another chose less pain medication in favour of greater clarity of mind. Some die surrounded by family, while others seem to wait until the one moment when family have just stepped out of the room.

This book generated excellent discussion as my group engaged with the content and also shared their own stories and personal perspectives. “What would we like to add to chapter 4?” I asked them, and they suggested:

  • more consideration of feelings–not focusing only on the rational but acknowledging the emotional;
  • the power of prayer to heal;
  • the power of community. I was especially struck by this, since the book seems to assume throughout that everyone has beloved and supportive family members to help discuss and make decisions. What about singles, widowed, those without children or other close relatives, I wondered. What role might there be for community?

In the days following our group meeting, I read the rest of the book, and grew to appreciate it even more for the practical helps it includes:

  • Discussion questions for each chapter;
  • Exercises on clarifying one’s own beliefs and preferences for care;
  • A checklist of tasks like writing a will and funeral planning;
  • Role-play scenarios that help bring the issues to life.

For more information, please see MennoMedia.

9 thoughts on “Does Everyone Deserve a Good Death?

  1. This review caused me to think again about the complexity of the death and dying process and the importance of not assigning meaning to the phrase “the good death” without recognizing the danger of generalizing beyond each individual case.

    I agree that the book is excellent for discussion and for spiritual reflection.

    I reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads also.

    1. I appreciate your comment about the complexity, Shirley. It’s not possible to address every individual situation, but by sharing his experience, the author offers a helpful place for individuals and families to start thinking about their own journeys. The group I met with readily engaged with the book and with each other, and I expect they will continue to deepen their engagement as they continue reading.

  2. Oh, wow. Does this post bring up a GREAT many thoughts!

    Briefly, I’ll settle on one, in particular. What about those for whom family is a battle ground? Dysfunctional families, or families with various feuds going on, fights outside of the dying loved one’s room in ICU, or even parts of families who are not welcome/legally permitted at their dying relative’s bedside? I have seen all of these in my work as a chaplain at an urban hospital (in Chicago).

    Yes, I wholeheartedly affirm the wish for a “good death,” however the patient describes it. However, I know from sad experience that this is not always able to happen. Just sayin’. @chaplaineliza

    1. Yes, so true! I think you and I could have quite a discussion over this. While it’s good to prepare, I also think it’s helpful to recognize the limitations. Even with the most thorough preparation, some things may not be possible. Item # 4 on the checklist is “Tidy up frayed personal relationships,” but I would want to couple that with Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

  3. Pondering whether there is another word that would fit better there than “deserves.” That it almost made you stop reading is powerful critique. I would love to hear if you can recommend a better word there. I thought of a woman who served our church wonderfully as a parish nurse. Then she herself became terminally ill. In spite of everything she and her family and the church knew and death and dying, her final passing was not serene, as her husband described it. It was very difficult and labored, with her type of cancer. She deserved better, but it was not to be. I’m enjoying Glen’s blog as he tells more stories and fleshes out even more meaning and nuances from the stories and circumstances he’s encountered. I would recommend it to your followers as well:

    1. Thanks for including the address for Glen’s blog where he shares many more stories. That’s a helpful way of expanding on the book. And hmmm, I don’t know that I can substitute another word for “deserves,” but maybe: What is a “good death”? For some, it may be important to die at home rather than in a hospital. Some might choose the professional care and peaceful surroundings of a hospice. Others might not be as concerned about their physical setting as long as they are surrounded by loved ones. Whatever your definition of a good death, you would do well to plan ahead and discuss with your family and/or other trusted people in your life.

  4. I’ve appreciated both the blog and the thoughtful responses. They’ve brought the book closer to the top of my reading list.

    1. I think you’d appreciate this book, Elsie. One reader sent me an email saying that she’s currently reading the book: “I want to let my family know what I hope for in the years to come. I’ll have to buy another copy to put into the church library because I want to keep this one to share with family!”

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