A "good death" could be defined as a death that happens:

  • at home, or at least surrounded by loved ones
  • with a chance to say goodbye
  • peacefully
  • the person is alert, calm and present
  • pain-free
  • with dignity
  • is expected and accepted
  • after a long, full life
  • when the family knows what happened
  • after everything feasible and desired was done to prevent the outcome
  • after which the remains are handled respectfully by loved ones, providing a sense of closure.

Unfortunately, this is an ideal that is seldom realized. Yet when any of these elements is not met, the challenge of accepting loss is more complicated and traumatic for those who remain behind.

During the Civil War, many soldiers experienced the opposite of such a "good death." Young men often died painfully and violently on a battlefield far from home, surrounded by strangers. They received no or inadequate medical care. Their remains were sometimes desecrated or left to rot. Many of their bodies were never identified or recovered. Some families never knew what had happened to their loved one, or even whether they were actually dead. A number of soldiers were reported only as "missing," and their families suffered in uncertainty and denial for years. (Per the public TV broadcast, American Experience: Death and the Civil War)

civil war dead
The dead of Antietam, photo by Alexander Gardner

In contrast, my husband died almost instantly. He probably did not experience much pain. He was doing something he loved - running in a park during his lunch break. However, no one he knew was there to tend to him as he lay dying. I never had a chance to say goodbye. His death was totally unexpected and shocking. He was only 52.

On the other hand, PS's wife Claudia died at home, with PS by her bed side. Her death was expected if not accepted. She had battled cancer for a year and half. However, in the end, she was in horrific pain, and heavily sedated with morphine. She was only 54.

Although the circumstances under which we lost our spouses were quite different, neither PS nor I fared well after the loss. They say you should not compare, but it might have been even harder for PS than it was for me. At least I had him to help me wade through my grief.

Perhaps we should be grateful for any shred of a good death given to those we love. And for the knowledge that at least they were loved.





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