It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.
In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.
My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.
My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.
Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.
Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.
That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.