Mastering the Natural Art of Dying

Make Death Come to Life


| March/April 1998



My father's death forever changed my relationship to life. Sitting at his bedside when his breathing stopped, I was awed by the transformations in his body: the deep relaxation that smoothed his furrowed brow, the look of pained concentration that slowly changed to wonder, the pearly translucence that radiated softly around him. I felt that I was witnessing a sacred event, perhaps even a miracle.

Ten months earlier, before he became bedridden with prostate cancer, my father had made it clear that he would not enter the hospital. If he was going to die, it would happen his way: He would be in his own bed, with the TV on and a cigarette and a drink nearby. I steeled myself for the worst, imagining that he would die a lonely alcoholic's death or that he would shoot himself if the pain got too severe, as he had often said he might. I relinquished the idea of a funeral because of his hatred of Catholicism, so there would be no end-of-life resolution, I thought sadly—more likely anger, perhaps relief.

But somehow my father died in peace, at home, surrounded by a loving family. He had made his peace with estranged relatives and with God. He had written a will, reconciled with the Church, and even helped plan his funeral. He had spent long hours recalling scenes from his youth, and a stream of dreams and hallucinations had opened up for him the possibility of an afterlife. His dying became a kind of party—sending out for his favorite foods, socializing with family, enjoying a few last drinks and cigarettes. And although my father and I did not say all the things to each other I had hoped we might, we walked his very last mile together, and that brought a lasting healing to our relationship.

The miracle of my father's dying occurred through the human agency of hospice workers—a chaplain, a social worker, and a nurse—as well as a priest with a soul of gold and a family who maintained a vigil until the end. My father did not die in pain, because he had been treated with morphine; nor did he die in fear, because he had confronted his anxieties; and he did not die alone, because counselors helped him reach closure with those dearest to him.

But as the reactions of friends who have lost parents made clear, my father's dying contrasted dramatically with the cultural norm. The hospice support was so unlike the more clinical treatment in a hospital. I began to wonder whether our society's neglect of the metaphysical dimension of death contributes to the suffering that attends our dying. Other ages and cultures have given more spiritual assistance to those confronting the mysterious passage from life to death. Unlike our society, they were aware that the dying process can be another stage of growth.

Just as we must master childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, dying presents its own challenges. Borrowing from the theories of Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow, and other developmental psychologists, hospice physician Ira Byock—author of Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life and president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine—has conceptualized the landmarks in end-of-life growth: completing our worldly affairs, coming to closure in personal and professional relationships, learning the meaning of one's life, loving oneself and others, accepting the finality of life, sensing a new self beyond personal loss, recognizing a transcendent realm, and surrendering to the unknown. Viewed from this perspective, says Buddhist teacher Christine Longaker, 'dying becomes another stage of living, a very vital stage that can allow us to conclude our lives well.'