If you think about death as a journey, not just as a specific moment, it may help you understand what it means to die well. But as with any journey, you need to prepare for it.
It might seem strange to think of death as something that you can ‘do well’. But, there are few things we would want more for ourselves and our loved ones than a good death.
If you are dying, it is likely that you will want to be at peace, as comfortable as possible and surrounded by those closest to you. You will probably want to die at home, and you will probably not want invasive treatment if it is clear that there would be little to gain from this.
A circle of support is important. Such a community might include (but is certainly not limited to) family and friends, carers, medics, a chaplain or a priest. This is relevant not just at the moment of death, but throughout the dying process. Having a community of accompaniment throughout the journey can help you to prepare by bringing consolation and spiritual peace.
Lucy O’Donnell was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in November 2011. She says of the time of her diagnosis: “I had all these amazing people around me. I had my faith. Actually I felt very buoyed up emotionally.”
Being with the people you know and love can bring comfort to your journey.
Hospital chaplain, Fr Peter Harries, says a good death may involve reconciliation with God or family members.
“It’s about tidying up loose ends in their lives. For other people it’s about times with family, friends, and those who are significant to them. It’s about spending quality time together and creating memories.”
But what if you have no faith and no loving family?
Sister Elizabeth Farmer, of the Little Company of Mary, a retired palliative care worker, remembers a patient called Olive who was dying of lung cancer. She lived alone, seemed to have no close friends or relatives, and refused to go to hospital. She was an atheist and at first unhappy to be visited by a nun. But Sister Elizabeth discovered that Olive had loved mountain climbing and won her trust by helping her visualise her illness by using the language of mountaineering.
When Olive’s bed had to be moved to the ground floor sitting room because she could no longer manage the stairs, the nun called it “base camp” and arranged for one wall to be covered in landscape photographs of mountains.
Late one night, Olive phoned Sister Elizabeth and asked whether she could go into hospital for a couple of days.
“Olive said to me ‘I’m glad I’m going in because I am going to do the most difficult climb of my life but at the top I am going to see the most wonderful sunrise.’ That’s the nearest we got to God but to me that was a totally spiritual saying. She died about three hours later”.
The journey towards death is as much about getting to know yourself as any part of life. Learning to recognise your needs – be they medical, emotional or spiritual – is something that may become more acute when you are closer to death. Being able to identify these needs is another central part of what it means to die well.
Gerry O’Hanlon, a teacher based in Newcastle, believes that his mother Mary had a good death, receiving the Anointing of the Sick and regular Holy Communion.
“I spent quite a lot of time with her and I did find that she was very much at peace. I tried to be near her as much as I could to reassure her,” says Gerry.
He recalls that that he usually held his mother’s hand at her bedside and how one of the sisters who worked at the home told him one day that he should let his mum go.
He thinks it is no coincidence that his mother died when he left the room. It is the kind of story that is often told about people who are dying. Sometimes, a dying person is said to wait to die until after a loved one arrives at their bedside.
A good death is a gift to those left behind. Gerry O’Hanlon says he is comforted by the manner of his mother’s death:
“She was surrounded by the prayer of the sisters, the priests saying Mass there and things which to her were so precious. She’s passed them on to me. So I have consolation that although yes, of course I miss her, nevertheless I’m able to think back to that.”
Catholics believe that death is the moment to witness to life and to witness to trust in God.
Ninety-four year old Nancy Dean died of terminal cancer. Shortly before she died, she said: “I’ve had a good life in many ways, and have had many blessings, but I’m tired now, and just hope I’m in a state of grace and ready to die properly.”
In an introduction to Catholic Prayers for the Dying, the Catholic Medical Association says that it is known that even if a dying person appears unconscious, they will participate in prayers and listen to them.
It says the prayers will be effective to help the dying on their journey to meet Our Lord, and that if said aloud in the presence of the person dying, that person will know that those who care and love them are near.