Random Hot Tip About Dying #4

(This post is continued from…wait for it…Random Hot Tip About Dying #3.)

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Tip #4: A “good death” is good for everyone.  A “bad death” is bad for everyone.  As a group we need to be shooting for a lot more good deaths than we are.

This tip is proving a lot harder to explain than the first three, perhaps because I only came to understand it myself by accident.  The way that each person dies affects FAR more than just the person who’s dying and those immediately around them, but I didn’t really understand that at first even though it seems so obvious now.  I arrived at the insight as a side effect of two other things I was doing:

1) Observing a lot of people die in a variety of ways from an assortment of causes while working with hospice, and

2) Listening to a lot of additional people tell me stories about their exposure to death and dying ranging from war zones, to murder and suicide, to accidents and mistakes, to emergency rooms and ICU’s, to the experiences of a friend during his brief stint working in a slaughter house long, long ago.

(And yes, animals, too, can die both good and bad deaths which yield a lasting influence…something else to think about.)

I’m not a counselor or anything, I’m just interested in people and like to hear their stories…which was usually all the prompting needed.  It was a little disconcerting to learn how many people there are out there who want and need to talk about these events with almost no chance to do so.

On the other hand, it was very heartening to see how much being able to talk about it…even once with a complete stranger…could help them.  It was like watching someone carrying a boulder around on their back finally put it down and rest for a bit.

Anyway, I discovered a trend that’s also been born out in the research (and is actually just common sense.) People who experienced someone dying badly suffered more lasting trauma than people who witnessed someone dying well.  They wound up needing more help themselves to deal with the trauma afterwards, it took them longer to recover and often only partially, they were less productive in their lives than they had been before the experience occurred, and their trauma translated into varying degrees of additional burden for the people who loved them.

And then these other people wound up passing on some of the burden on to their extended world.  And so on.

It’s the ripple effect.  Think of each death as a rock getting dropped into a pond, they all disturb the stillness of the water.  Each time someone dies the fierce energy it creates spreads out into their extended world and a whole lot of people…both loved ones and perfect strangers…wind up getting rocked by it.  Sometimes small rocking, sometimes capsizing.  Depending on how any one person dies it can eventually result in disability, alcoholism or drug abuse, divorce, bankruptcy, dropping out of school, estrangement, broken families, job loss, business failure, phobias, health breakdowns, and on and on.

Dying is an incredibly powerful force.  It just is.  That’s not something we can change.  But we could certainly do a better job of managing that force than we have been.  There are so many things that can be done to minimize the damaging influences and maximize the powerful healing potential that’s also available.

We really do have some control over the size of the rocks going into the pond.

So what’s the difference between a good death and a bad one?

First of all, a good death is not a black and white thing…which probably contributes to a lot of the confusion about what it is.  A good death doesn’t mean that you have to die in old age in your sleep, lying on white linen with hands folded over your breast and a beatific smile on your lips, all your loved ones sitting around the bed waving flowers and joyfully singing hallelujah, take them home.  Far from it.  It can happen in an infinite number of ways.  A good death can even be pulled out of raging carnage at the last minute sometimes.

(Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how powerful last words and gestures and other interesting phenomena can be.  They can have an effect that appears damn well miraculous to the naked eye. If we really understood as a society the force that’s available during that little window of time, and everyone started learning how to consciously harness it and put it to good use instead of allowing it to just randomly blow lives up the way we tend to now…well, I don’t know what would happen exactly.

But I suspect the rippling, transformative effect on our communities would be similar to the transformative effect it already has on the individuals directly involved.  Only collectively.  And if I’m right, there’d be a lot more hope, courage, and recovery going on and lot less crippling dread and futile treatment.)

Anyway, here are just a few things that can contribute to a bad death and increased trauma for everyone involved:

Violence, suddenness, youth, futile treatments, isolation, regrets, denial, poor communication, lack of control, abandonment, ignorance of the process, previous experience with bad deaths, in-fighting, lack of cohesion among loved ones, confusion, medical mistakes, insurance problems, uncontrolled symptoms, selfishness, poor quality care, and lack of help and guidance among others.

The list really does go on and on but I personally would put poor communication and lack of help and guidance at the top.  With those two in place it’s far harder for the others to breed and multiply the way they tend to otherwise.

Obviously, some of these things are harder to manage than others.  Accidental and violent deaths tend to cause the most damaging ripples, but a couple of ways these deaths are converted into good deaths is if they at least happen while the person’s doing something they believe in or love, or if some meaningful change can be effected in the world because of their death. It’s when they’re entirely random or pointless that recovery becomes most difficult.

Suicide, of course, is generally held to be the king of bad deaths.

Having said all that though, sudden or very quick death only happens to roughly 10% of the population.  The window in which to work on a good or bad death is going to be longer for the other 90% of us.

So what contributes to a good death?

Good communication, good education about dying, previous experience of good deaths, a long life, acceptance of dying, good relationships, respect of the dying person’s wishes, cohesion among loved ones, palliative and hospice care and adequate insurance for both, caring about the others involved, effective treatment of symptoms, loving care, completion of end-of-life tasks, enough time to get everything done, faith in something, and valuing the life still remaining among many, many others.

Enough!  I’m at about a million words now and have worked on this post for three weeks.  I really need to let this go now.

Next up: Random Hot Tip #5: There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.