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What is a Good Death?

Posted by on in Current Medical Issues

I have been thinking a lot about end of life planning.  I recently started helping people with this aspect of their lives by acting as a healthcare power of attorney for those who need a non-family member in that role. And yes, I intentionally italicized "of their lives."

A good friend’s mother recently died at age 94; she was well loved by her family, and very well cared for despite living for many years disabled by a stroke. My friend and his family were able to be with her in an inpatient hospice setting, it was clear she did not want any extraordinary measures taken to prolong the inevitable, and they could sit and hold her hand as she passed. Sounds pretty ideal, right? And despite glitches along the way, it seems so.

As we were discussing it after her shiva (the Jewish period of 7 days of the acute phase of mourning—or less depending on your adherence to classic protocols), it occurred to me that there are 3 general death scenarios. The one above is the clear scenario that most of us envision as “a good death”.

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Another scenario is where a family member dies suddenly, unexpectedly, and the family and friends are left in shock, having had no time to process it before it happens. Interestingly, this is not necessarily a “bad death” for the deceased, but it certainly is hard for the family.

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The third general scenario is where some or all of the participants (including the “patient”) have not accepted that death is a part of life (thus the italics above).  The hard discussions of what the person wants at the end of life, when they want to push on, when they want to call it quits, where they want to die, who they want with them—all of the factors that go into a “good death”—have not been discussed, or the family ignores the wishes and countermands them. Or worse, there is disagreement among family members about the treatment course.

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I cannot claim to have the lock on what a good death looks like to others, but I do know what can be done to lessen the stress felt by families going through this passage. In the first scenario, end of life wishes were known and discussed, and it was the end of a good long life. In the second scenario, there was likely no preparation, and nothing can mend the shock felt by the family except time. In the third scenario, there is a lot of preparation that could be done to prepare for and avoid conflict and stress.

This is why I advise everyone to have a healthcare power of attorney designated and an advance directive in place. We can make a death better for both the patient and the family if we confront this before it is needed. I have been through two of the three scenarios personally, and I vastly prefer the first one.
Best of Health,
Sima Kahn, MD
Founder, Healthcare Advocacy Partners
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