“Death is inevitable. A bad death is not,” blares the headline of the April 29th edition of The Economist. The feature repeats the arguments why more palliative care, a “neglected branch of medicine,” is needed and why “honest and open conversations about dying should be as much a part of modern medicine as prescribing drugs or fixing broken bones.”
The coming first anniversary of the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide, and the debate surrounding it, easily muddy the discussion-of-death waters. The mistaken premise of this debate is the affirmation that the choice to die is what makes for a good death. Autonomy does not transform something that is inherently bad into something good.
While fully appreciative and respectful of the medical profession’s important contribution, the debate also betrays an overly medicalized understanding of life. We may need to breathe in order to live but few of us would say that breathing is living. In a biological sense, yes. In a holistic sense, we only get started when we breathe.
Preparing for death is not preparing for the end of breathing; it needs to focus on the completion of living. Still, in spite of medicine’s progress, 100 per cent of us die. We all at one point or another, breathe our last. True, for most, death will typically come three decades later than it would have in 1900, but infinitely forestalling death remains the domain of science fiction.
Approximately 10 per cent of us will die suddenly, without warning and without a chance to say good-bye to those who are near to us. For the remaining 90 per cent or so, at some point we will receive the news that while the precise time can’t be pinpointed, it will likely be a matter of years/weeks/days when we can expect our passing. Sure, we may be able to choose from among a medical intervention or three, which may (or may not) extend that timeline marginally, but the inevitable is near.
I wonder if the question surrounding a good death involves less medicine and more of how we prioritize the remaining time. For most of us, these priorities are likely to fall into some combination of five categories. By happy coincidence, they are congruent with Dr. Ira Byock’s The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living, though I had not read his 2004 book when I came up with my own list.
There is someone to whom we need to say, “I love you.” Whatever our status or wealth, death is an equalizer. The value of intimacy and our closest relationships are highlighted at these times and the need to say, with words and deeds, “I love you” to those whom we really love becomes the most important item on our agenda.