By F. Daniel (Dan) Davies
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:7 (KJV)
I have experienced that peace at least two times in my life, first following the death of my older brother and then, for a second time, in the moments immediately after my mother’s death. Both died after enduring the pain and discomfort of aggressive attempts to fend off disease—a recurrent, metastatic cancer in the case of my brother, and congestive heart failure and chronic lung disease in my mother’s. In his as well as her own time, each recognized the crippling costs of continuing to strive for another month or two of life, perhaps even a year or more, and, given those costs, said “no more.” Both also sought to free themselves from the fear of death and once they had, spent the remainder of their lives living and reconciling themselves—to themselves, to others, and ultimately, I believe, to God.
The moments leading up to and immediately following their deaths are cherished, sacred memories for me. I had a strong but serene sense of God’s presence in my life and it filled me in the midst of the immediate loss of this woman, who gave me birth, and of this man, with whom I shared a fraternal relationship that began, in childhood, as a conflict-ridden bond but ended, in late adulthood, as a remarkably strong, loving kinship. For me, both that loss and that presence are mysterious—they “passeth all understanding.” Yet, in the end, what I know with convicted certainty is this: I experienced peace, the strong but serene sense of God’s presence in my life.
In our death-defying culture and age, too many people deny themselves and their loved ones the chance to experience, at the end of life, that peace which passeth all understanding. Too many believe that modern medicine can indefinitely extend and even save their lives, despite lethal disease or trauma, and at any age. Too many want “everything done” to bring them back from the brink of death. And too many, toward the end of life, are so consumed with the fruitless struggle of avoiding death that they neglect the important work to be done in truly living our dying. It does not help that, despite their wishes, most people die in hospitals and nursing homes, which are ill suited to this work. They are, after all, citadels in the fight against human disease and death. They stand in defiance against the inescapable reality of human mortality. And all too often, death in these places is the outcome of an exhausting, anguish-ridden struggle that leaves family and friends of the dead with unhealed, sometimes festering wounds for months and even years afterwards.
What can be done? How can one reach and prepare for a good death? (And by “good” I mean a death preceded by care for the totality of a human’s needs as he or she travels the road that every mortal being must travel: for her physical, psychosocial, cultural, and spiritual needs.) A first step is to become more mindful of how we engage death in our daily lives, recalling that as Christians, we are often called to live with—and sometimes in—paradox. The paradox of death is that it is something we rightly strive to avoid for most of our lives and yet we know that it is ultimately unavoidable. And, it is not just unavoidable: it is always possible. For Christians, the terrible knowledge that death is unavoidable and always possible, the abiding awareness of our existential vulnerability, is leavened with faith: faith that death is but a portal between this world and the world to come. Our task, then, is to live as well and as long as we can without living in fear of death and, when the time comes, to acknowledge and, yes, accept the inevitable.
A second step is to acknowledge, accept, and—most important—talk about death’s presence in our lives. Strong currents in our culture lead us to wall off, confine and deny death. We have to work consciously against those currents for they falsify reality and leave us ill equipped to reckon with our own mortality—and the mortality of others, especially those to whom we are bound by ties of love and affection. We need to have the courage—and to encourage others—to talk about the inevitable, especially within the more intimate contexts of families and friends. Often found among the causes of a bad death is the lack of any conversation with loved ones about the deceased’s hopes and wishes for the end of life. By contrast, families who talk about death—who share their hopes and dreams about dying well—often experience relief from the oppressive burden of silence and denial. Denial, by clinicians, as well as by patients and their loved ones, drives a key facet of poor quality care at the end of life: intensive but all-too-often useless measures that prolong dying rather than enhance living during what remains of a dying person’s life. The frequent outcome of this spiral of silence, denial, and futile treatment is a spiritually impoverished death, a death absent the full and sustaining peace of God.
There are, no doubt, third, fourth, fifth and sixth steps in the reach for a good death. Their description will have to be postponed to another, perhaps subsequent essay. In bringing this essay to a close, I want to leave the reader with these words about a good death by Marie de Hennezel, a psychologist at a Parisian hospice, whose Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live is an exploration of “a miracle. When death comes so close, and sadness and suffering rule, there is still room for life, and joy and surges of feeling deeper and more intense than anything known before.”