Dr Pamela Prince Pyle

What is a Good Death?

I imagine most have heard the phrase, “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes” or a variety of modern English versions. However, until Death steps up to our door, enters our hospital room, or speaks when we pick up the phone, the inevitability of taxes is more tangible than the D word.

Most of us understand that one day we will die, yet we don’t expect that one day to be today. We live in optimism and blind faith that the breath we have in the morning will still be there as we settle down to sleep.

This will not be true for some of us today. 

Death may be seated at our breakfast table or at dinner. He may be our companion on our way to work, or as we take our dogs for a walk. Perhaps, we consider him for the first time while we wait for biopsy results or see the doctor approaching looking down to avoid meeting our eyes. 

When we consider Death personified, it is easy to imagine a hooded figure, face obscured, and scythe in hand. Therefore, when we consider the phrase, “What is a good death?”, it may seem impossible to associate the two words, good and death. Yet, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Death can be the friend who walks us into the arms of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

I have shared this story previously; however, I share it again for new readers because my patient was the epitome of Living with the End in Mind and Anticipating Heaven. Death was merely her escort home which inscrutably made him good. 

“It’s okay, I’m going to have a good death.”

I paused outside her closed door to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. Entering her room, I expected to find multiple family members surrounding her, as there had been on most days. Instead, she was alone. 

As I shut the door behind me, the noises of a full ward faded, giving way to the gentle sounds of a humidifier and an elderly woman who was struggling to breathe. Her eyes were closed, and an oxygen mask covered her nose and mouth. I glanced at the windowsill where multiple cards were displayed—a child’s drawing peeking out of one. Flowers were on the bedside table, with a family photo nearby. This was a well-loved woman.

I had witnessed her decline with each hospital visit, and it was obvious that the end was approaching. She knew it too and had requested to speak with me that day. When I sat gently on the bed, her eyes opened. Recognizing me, her eyes revealed a faint smile underneath her mask. I reached for her hand and leaned forward so we might hear each other.

Her hand was frail in mine, and yet her grip was tight as I began to share with her the painful truth: she was dying. Her disease had ravaged her lungs to the point that it was time to make some critical decisions. 

She asked a series of straightforward and thoughtful questions, each one requiring her to gasp for air. 

“So, how much time do I have left?” 

“When I am short of breath like this, I feel terrible. Will my suffering worsen?”

“You’ve witnessed the final moments of many others. What will it be like?” 

“My family understands what is coming, but what exactly will they see?”

In my thirty-three years of medical practice—in state-of-the-art hospitals in the United States and in more nascent clinics in Rwanda—I have had countless end-of-life conversations. Yet this was the first time that a patient, friend, or family member asked such direct questions. 

I answered her questions as clearly, honestly, and gently as possible. However, something about this moment—perhaps her quiet strength in the face of death, or maybe the fact that she would be missed terribly by her family, as well as by myself—moved me unexpectedly. 

When I finally said, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you these things,” I began to weep. 

To my surprise, my patient grabbed my other hand and squeezed even tighter. “It’s okay,” she said as she comforted me. “I am going to have a good death. Please prepare my family. I am ready.” 

Confidence in the Destination

The questions she asked that day were related to the dying process. However, we had previous conversations about our shared faith. Her declaration of confidence in her good death was based upon her belief in Jesus Christ. 

We too can live and die Anticipating Heaven. The Greek word for saved is σώζω and pronounced sozo. This word also means healed. Isn’t that the sine qua non of a good death? When we are saved by declaring Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are healed. When we die, the full expression of that healing occurs in our glorified body. 

“Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory.

They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. Th

 are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual 

bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.”

1 Cor 15:44-45

“For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die;

 our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.”

1 Cor 15:53

My patient in this story experienced a good death because she was prepared to die. Billie Graham, the great evangelist, often asked the question, “Are you prepared to die?” We only have this side of our last breath to be fully prepared to step into eternity. Our last day may be today, and we must also ask ourselves the same question.

“Am I prepared to die?”

2 Responses

  1. Yes, I am prepared to die.Most days I am looking forward to it; but I recently was confronted with the immediate prospect an was concerned how I really was not all that prepared. My brain tells me I will be reunited with my soul mate, have a new non-paralyzed body and get to ask God about why the Avocado seed is so big and our pet dogs lived so short of lives. I’ve always wondered why believers fear death so much….now I wonder why I feared it when it was immenent. (The surgery I thought was inevitable didn’t happen and I’m still here ….for now. Are we ever really prepared??

    1. Dr. Dan,
      You bring up very valid points and I know you have thought yourself ready for many years and yearn for the reunion with your beautiful wife. Having fear or anxiety at the prospect of death does not mean that we are not prepared, it means we are human. Most often our fear surrounds the dying process as opposed to our last breath. I have been witness to the dying process over thirty years and the Christian dying experiences more peace and joy the closer they get to promised land. When our soul is prepared, we are prepared. Our body suits might fight but our soul and spirit leans forward as if to win the race. Be brave my Brother, paradise awaits.

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