In the success driven society that we live in, I’m surprised there is so little out there about a successful dying experience. There are hundreds of books about how to be a successful parent, a successful spouse, a successful employee or employer. There are success how to’s for education, healthcare, businesses, nonprofits and churches.
Likely, this absence of material about successful dying comes from the link of success to achievement. No one feels confident linking death with achievement. However, what about the idea of dying well? Is this something individually or culturally we should strive for?
Dying well sits more comfortably with us, as we can generalize a bit more about what dying well means. Usually it’s when there is an absence of suffering, when the timing coincides with loved ones presence, when symptoms are controlled and the environment is peaceful; things that at first glance seem out of the control of the person who is dying.
While we may hesitate to discuss what dying well means, historically this was not so. In the 1400’s at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church a booklet was published called “Ars Moriendi” (The Art of Dying) and was the quintessential book on preparing to die, and dying well. It was widely circulated, with over 100 editions and translations into most European languages.
The book spiritualized dying, describing five temptations people dying face. Those temptations were lack of faith, despair, impatience, vanity and greed. The way to die well, then, was to fight these temptations with their opposites. Dying well meant having faith, hope, patience, humility and generosity.
In the 1400’s the availability of medications for symptom management was non-existent. This booklet served to place reason for many of the experiences people witnessed in the death of a loved one. Without an understanding of terminal delirium and restlessness, it was easier to claim impatience as the cause and pray for patience.
In our modern day, medications and scientific understanding help us recognize and treat the physical aspects to aid in dying well. There is more, however, that may be in our control than we’d like to think.
Suffering, despite what we may believe, is not an easily medicated symptom. Since suffering originates from the mind, from experiences, and specifically beliefs and thoughts about those experiences, the control rests solely on the individual. To die well, without suffering, may incorporate some of the very things this 600-year-old book spoke of.
I have seen despair resolve when the focus of regrets moves towards the hope of resolution. I have seen vanity melt away with the courage to humbly ask for forgiveness. I have seen the suffering that stems from the greed and self- focus of ‘why me?’ disappear with a shift to gratitude for the life one has lived.
What does it mean to you to die well? It’s probably too uncomfortable to equate dying well with successful dying, but let’s at least be aware that some of the suffering we all want to avoid at the end can be dealt with while we are living.