June 03, 2009

What Constitutes a Good Death?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, I received shocking news that a former colleague had died. In a testament to the use of technology in our lives today, her husband delivered this news by text message. I don’t quibble about his form of announcement because since he sent a text, he was able to send the link for a memorial website and provide other details that are more tedious to share by voice.

My colleague (whom I will call Jean) and I had worked together in Florida and although she had moved to another state a few years ago, we kept in touch with annual texts and occasional emails. Once when my husband and I were visiting in the city where they lived, my husband and I met Jean and her husband to socialize. In other words, I was a link—I think the only work related one—between Jean, her new city, and her former work life in Florida.

On the memorial website, I was able to look at a brief timeline of Jean’s life and read tributes to her. From the website, I also learned that she died less than two weeks shy of her 40th birthday. I spent a couple days feeling dazed about Jean’s death and then it dawned on me that others of her Florida colleagues would want to know of her passing and more than likely I was the only one here who knew of this.

As I shared the sad news with Jean’s former colleagues in Florida, they all asked the same questions: What happened? How did she die? I wondered the same thing but that information was not in the text message from Jean’s husband. And when I spoke with him he did not volunteer any such information, only saying that Jean had been hospitalized for a couple weeks. I made the decision not to ask about the circumstances of Jean’s death because her husband sounded too grief-stricken to want to talk about it.

A few years ago, I learned of the death of another university colleague from a close friend of his. In telling me of someone I’ll call Mike’s death, she revealed that he had committed suicide. Published reports of Mike’s death said that he died of “undisclosed causes” and indicated that his family did not want to talk about his cause of death. In a deeply moving memorial service that lasted about three hours, no one mentioned that Mike had committed suicide.

Should they have done so? I’m still unsure about how many people knew that Mike took his own life, but at the time of Mike’s death, I thought that his suicide could be used to help teach college students about suicide, particularly because college-age people are among the age group (ages 15-24) for whom suicide is the third leading cause of death. I gave considerable thought to ”outing” the circumstances of Mike’s death to help others, but finally decided to respect the apparent wishes of his family.

Do the circumstances of our death matter? Why is that the first thing that we wonder about? Why do family members sometimes feel compelled to hide such information? How does a person’s cause of death impact the way we mourn them or even remember them? Would people’s impressions of Mike have changed if they learned he had taken his own life? Would their testimonials have been less glowing? Would it have made them angry with him? How would learning that he committed suicide color their grief? And without that information, as with Jean, we are left wanting more information.

What does learning someone had AIDS mean for us in thinking of their death? Or if he or she died as a result of a homicide? Even death has to be contextualized for us. In learning of someone’s death, another question that we usually ask about is their age. We have ideas about what is a reasonable age—and way—to die and events that don’t confirm to those notions can be baffling. When a 95 year old dies, that seems to be in the natural order of things (although probably very little, if at all, less painful for their family). When children die or parents outlive their children—regardless of age—this seems “unnatural”. When we learn that a 39 year old woman died, we have many questions. With today’s high life expectancies, we expect people to live long lives.

If you don’t think that the circumstances of our deaths matter, think about whether you would use a special power to decide how you and your loved ones die. Although the end results are the same, we do feel differently about whether people perish at Jonestown, in a plane crash, are murder victims, commit suicide or die of natural causes.


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I found this to be a post that definitely rings true. It's odd to think about what people consider to be a "good death." It's even like how they don't even have a name for a parent whose child dies. There are widows or widowers if you lose a spouse, and if a child doesn't have a parent, they are an orphan. Why is there no name for a parent who loses a child? Maybe there isn't because it is such a disruption of the natural order of things? Very interesting post.

Would have wanted people to know how you died or keep it a family thing?

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