To Die Well

Everyone liked him.  Though his later years (the only ones in which I knew him) took away his ability to do most things, and though he was in great pain every day, it was easy to see the mischief in his eyes.  The subtle humor was still there, coming out of a man who was weak, in pain, dying.

She lived for him.  She was always telling me of his pain, frustrated with the fact that he didn’t tell me enough.  She was anxious about each complaint of his, wondering if this was the one that would take him away from her.  Many of her problems were driven by this anxiety and fears, and she spent many hours in my office giving witness to them through her tears.

As his health failed, I wondered at her future.  He was the center of her life, the source of her energy, joy, purpose.  How could she manage life without him?  How could she, who had so much lived off of the care of this wonderful man, find meaning and purpose in a life without his calming presence?

Then he died.

I saw her in the office recently, and was amazed at the look in her eyes.  It wasn’t the empty, lonely look I was expecting.  It wasn’t the worried, helpless look that I had seen so many times.  It was peaceful, content.

“You look good,” I said, wondering at what I saw.

“I miss him a lot,” she said – something that really didn’t need saying.

“You look…content, much better than I expected,” I responded.

“I feel content.  I miss him so terribly, but I am so blessed that I could be with him when he died.”

When his health failed, I called hospice to take away much of the worry and fear.  I wasn’t sure how well she’d accept that help, but she did, and his death came fairly rapidly.

“He died in my arms,” she continued.  ”For the last two hours of his life, he just lay in my arms.  He didn’t say anything to me, but I am sure he knew.  I just held him.”

“I’m glad you could do that.  I want people to die with their loved ones around them.  It’s a sacred thing, something very intimate.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, looking up at me and smiling.  ”All of those years we spent together, and I got to be with him until the very end.  He was mine, and I took care of him.  Now when I think about how he died, I get meaning and purpose.”

I thought about this as she left the office.  I’ve seen many people die, and have helped many through the grieving process.  I have witnessed the loneliness, the pain, the loss, and have done what I can to comfort.  But this woman took comfort in something unexpected: she took comfort in her husband’s death.  The story ended up in such a fulfilling way that the pain of loss was eclipsed by the joy of a life with her husband.  The way he died made all of the love and all of the shared life close in a way that wasn’t tragic, it was climactic.

That is what it is to die well.  Death is inevitable, but it is almost always seen as tragic.  Yet his death was a culmination of all his life had been.  His memorial service, she told me, was filled with people telling of his wonderful demeanor, his wry humor, and his caring heart.  So to her, the story ended up in a most satisfying way.  The intensity of the loss only serves to emphasize the glory of the life.

May we all die so well.

Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at Musings of a Distractible Mind, where this post first appeared. For some strange reason, he is often stopped by strangers on the street who mistake him for former Atlanta Braves star John Smoltz and ask “Hey, are you John Smoltz?” He is not John Smoltz. He is not a former major league baseball player. He is a primary care physician.

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  1. Die well , Is Dying quickly? The Joy of ones lifetime with one another pales to those who die from PREVENTABLE Medical Errors and Staph infections. Least I need to flaunt the word “Preventable” with the Medical Profession. However, Hospital Acquired Infections and Medical Errors are terms that are taboo to discuss in front of Patients.When patients have HAI’S Hospitals shift the blame to the patient.Knowing fully well that they are not blameless for the spread of infections. Furthermore,most professionals
    have little understanding of the rapid urgency to prevent infections in high risk patients. Their slow reactionary times (waiting for signs of a full blown infection) and lack of urgency has allowed MRSA Pneumonia turn into sepsis, organ failure and death. Spend 21 days in a Hospital that has no interests in preventing Staph Infections and by the time a full infection is noticed;it is too little and too Late.
    When you Experience Lies and deception from Doctors and refuse to provide a straight answer;Then lets talk about dying well! Hospital Administrators who refused to meet with family. Hospital and Doctors who tried to cover up errors and the staph Infection. Adding insult to injury were the superficial investigations by the State and the Grossly dysfunctional Joint Commission.
    Dying well would be better received if doctors would follow “Do NO Harm” and Hospitals would put Patient Safety First and Foremost. The Investor can still make a modest return without Prematurely killing High Risk Patients!!!!!!!

  2. Great wisdom here. As a society we need more of the same.
    In my post-retirement job as a senior care-giver (non-medical) I have been with at least four people who either died while I was there or within a few hours after I left.
    I don’t have bad feelings about surviving families since in many cases it is almost impossible to predict when death will occur within half a day or more. But too often the hospice alternative is either not used or is taken only at the very end, causing far more mental and physical suffering than necessary, for both the family and the dying person.
    Ignorance, denial and widespread ignorance of hospice and palliative care is one of the dirty little secrets of health care. Thanks to science we are taught to believe that dying is optional. And sadly it almost IS optional.