Thinking About Good Deaths

Although I’ve always said I plan to live forever (or die trying), I’m slowly accepting that I’m not immortal. That makes me think about how I’d like to die.

Here’s my dream death: Live a long time, longer than the actuarial tables estimate, in reasonably good health, with few serious health crises along the way. Remain able to reason and do many of the things I want to do. Continue to have friends around. Reach a point where I’m getting more frail, so that both I and my friends and family know that the end is coming. Die quickly, preferably suddenly of something that does not throw me into a hospital and futile attempts to keep me alive.

My grandmother (my father’s mother) died like that, a heart attack in her sleep at the age of 91, after she had become more frail, but some years after she’d had any major health issues. We knew she was becoming frail, but while I felt the loss and still miss her (and it’s been over thirty years now), I welcomed that quick end of life.

However, I know someone else who died of that kind of heart attack who was not quite 60 and not in any way frail, and I still feel the unfairness of it. He should have had treatment and lived much longer.

Those four things are key for me: living longer than expected; increased frailty, so that death is not a surprise to you or those who love you; continued competence and ability to enjoy life despite the frailty, up to the end; and a quick death.

And none of them is a given. You can do the things to keep yourself healthy, but that doesn’t guarantee that something bad won’t sneak up on you. Wealth can buy you the best health care, but even that doesn’t always keep people alive. Dementia is a real thing and we do not know how to prevent it. And your heart may be strong enough to keep you going even as some other disease is ravaging your body.

There are things you can do, of which I suspect the most important is making connections with other people so that you will have friends to help you when you need care. Not all of us have family to take care of us and even those who do need more connections than that.

And you can plan: Deal with your money. Make sure someone will take care of the things that matter, whether it’s work or objects or other people. Make it easy for whoever might have to make the hard decisions at the end to know what you want, whether it’s a do not resuscitate order or the kind of burial. None of that’s easy, particularly dealing with money, which I’d rather not do. But important.

Most deaths that I am familiar with were not as good as my grandmother’s, making me fear that hers was an exception when I’d like it to be the rule.

I knew in my gut that my mother was dying months before she died, but I was in denial about it. I fear she may have been in denial, too. She did live longer than her time, especially given her smoking, but she spent years fading away from emphysema.

My father’s body outlived his mind, so that he was gone before he was gone. His death came as a relief, but that’s no way to feel about loss. I miss them both very much.

If you have an illness that is likely to kill you slowly, I guess the best thing is to make some peace or other pact with death. I hope that I will do that, if I have to. But I hope I don’t have to.

I hope to go like my grandmother, keep my marbles, start to fade so that death is not a surprise to me or anyone else, and then die quickly. It seems like very little to ask for even as it seems oh, so rare.

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About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Thinking About Good Deaths — 13 Comments

  1. My father–eyesight issues aside–was pretty active and sharp as a tack up to his last fortnight. He had had recurrent bouts of pneumonia: the valve in the esophagus that sends air to the lungs and food to the stomach had weakened and was no longer keeping particles of food out of his lungs. I was in the hospital room when the doctor explained all this and what could be done: Not much, unless he wanted to have a feeding tube implanted. My father sat up in his hospital bed and said, crisply, “abso-fucking-lutely not.” The doctor was a little startled by Dad’s vehemence, but Dad had been a volunteer EMT and had strong feelings about what he would or would not put up with. So he went home, in care of hospice, and was gone less than a fortnight later.

    He was 98.

    As deaths go, it was exactly what I’d like: time to say goodbye, not much in the way of pain, surrounded by people he loved. We should all be so lucky. And I hope I’m smart enough, and able, when my time comes, to say “abso-fucking-lutely not” to the sort of life extension intervention that gives you more days but less quality.

    Just don’t be in a rush, Nancy. We like you round here.

  2. There are many, many resources to help you do this, BTW. Just google around. The broad advice I would give is that if you want something to happen, set it up. As in novels, the ending has to be prepared for. Events are not just going to spontaneously generate the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

    If you want a massive tomb with pillars, like Leland Stanford’s, get it going now — don’t rely upon your heirs, who may rather spend the capital upon condos and golf. If you have books that you want to stay in print, designate a literary executor. If you don’t want to die on life support, get a living will organized. If you want certain hymns sung at your funeral, list them and put it in an easily-found file folder labeled DEATH.

    I have seen this get amazingly granular. There are people who indicate that, at the pot luck meal after their funeral, they want Mabel to make the potato salad because Susan will insist on putting bacon into it and I won’t have it, bacon should not be in potato salad.

    Oh, and if you don’t want to confront these issues when your spouse/parent/siblings die, get them to at least say what they want, so that -somebody- will know. I was astonished, when I broached the subject with my late parents, that they intended to be cremated and scattered under the Golden Gate Bridge. None of us had ever thought of that.

    • There are so many circumstances where writers did not put in place a literary executor who would handle their work well, which leads to work being out of print when it should be available. If your family doesn’t care about what you write, set up an executor who does.

    • My dad left money and directions for a party to be held directly after his ashes were scattered (by plane) over a favorite bit of his former property. There was a Dixieland band there to play us dirgefully to the site, and joyously back to the party site. He had the pilot and the band lined up. The only thing he didn’t arrange for was showing up in person…

  3. Good advice. My mom approached death as inevitable, to be held off for a while, but not to the point of intrusive machines just to keep the body alive. By the time she had her final stroke and was gone within 4 days, she was ready. She’d organized her finances and will ages before that.

    My m-i-l firmly believed that even to talk about death invited it. To plan for it meant you’d be gone in 24 hours. She wasn’t ready. Her healthcare provider did manage to get her to sign a will and pay for cremation (bless her) I don’t know how she did it, but it made our saying good bye much easier.

    When it comes to end of life arrangements, think about those you leave behind, not your own fears and superstitions. Please.

    • When it came to financial matters, my parents did a wonderful job. They sold the property where I grew up, and while I loved my childhood home, neither my sister nor I would ever have wanted to live there and it was a tricky piece of property to sell. Their wills left everything to each other, and after my mother passed, my father set things up so that all his assets included my sister and me as direct beneficiaries or co-signers on the bank accounts, which meant we didn’t even have to do any probate.

      But I wish we’d had some conversations earlier about how to care for them as they aged. We made a lot of best guesses in the case of my father.

  4. My parents were very, very organized about their end game. They simplified their finances, decluttered their living space, set up all the standard end-of-life things like living wills and powers of attorney. It was still very hard when they passed, within a few months of each other, but at least we didn’t have to dig through a mass of financial and household chaos.

    There are massive numbers of bad examples: people who say, “Oh, I’ll let the kids take care of it.” So the bereaved and mourning children have to confront a mansion packed full of 55 years of stuff, that’ll take a year to shovel out properly, with all the attendant fighting about the division of assets. Or the people who refuse to face the fact that they cannot manage in that mansion any more, or drive, and put themselves and others at risk. You can make it easy on others, or you can make it hard, it’s up to you. But it’s going to happen. Death and taxes, remember, the only sure things in life.

    • I’ve made progress on my personal matters, but I still have a long way to go before I leave something behind besides a mess. I figure I’m not going to want to keep dealing with all of this, so I have some incentive. In my best of all possible worlds, everything would be simple for me, too.

  5. Thanks, Nancy Jane — exactly the way I’d like it, too. Thor and I took care of our wills and health directives to make things simpler. I’m letting everyone know that I’d like a green burial so that my organic matter can contribute to new animal and plant growth — what feels like a good way to remain (ha!) in the cycle of life. Mom’s long decline into frailty and dementia was a hard one, but mercifully an aneurysm took her before she needed to go into a care facility, which she adamantly refused. My sisters and I still struggle with my cantankerous 96-year-old father, who seems to think he should live forever, demanding the doctors “fix him.” Not a graceful way to go.

    • I’d like the green burial, too. It seems to be possible at a site in Marin County, and I know there’s a lot of movement in that area in Washington state, so you likely have options.

      My father might have been as cantankerous as yours, but dementia robbed him of the ability to make decisions. I think I’d have preferred fighting with him.