The Greatest Gift to Those You Love
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a renowned
psychologist, esteemed thanatologist and prolific author who believed
life is actually
enriched by the contemplation of death and dying. This is a bold belief in a society
which, at all costs, avoids even speaking about this most inevitable part of life.
It was this belief that led him to write a paper called
Criteria for a Good Death, listing 10 components of what he called a “Good Death":
Natural – does not occur by accident, suicide or homicide
Mature – occurs after age 70, still cognitively sharp but "old enough
to have experienced and savored life"
Expected – is neither sudden nor unexpected – having some decent warning
(at least a week)
Honorable – is filled with honorifics and not dwelling on past failures –
a positive obituary
Prepared – a living trust and other arrangements have been made for the necessary
legalities after death
Accepted – you are “willing the obligatory” by gracefully accepting
Civilized – you have loved ones present and are surrounded by whatever brings
you joy, i.e. music, flowers, photos
Generative – you have passed down the wisdom of the tribe to younger generations
by sharing history, memories, etc. either verbally or in writing
Rueful – you cherish the emotional state: a bittersweet mixture of sadness,
yearning, nostalgia, appreciation, thoughtfulness and even regret if without
depression or collapse
Peaceable – you are surrounded by amicability, love and are without pain
Since it is not specifically addressed in these criteria, I would add one more:
Complete – you have recognized and resolved any interpersonal conflicts,
saying whatever needs to be said, including assuring others of your forgiveness.
I’m also reminded of the Hawaiian reconciliation and forgiveness
practice of Ho’oponopono: I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank
you, I love you.
At the end of the paper, Dr. Shneidman wrote,
with a sweeping question: Is it possible to formulate a Golden Rule for
a good death, a maxim that has the survivors in mind? I would offer, as
a beginning, the following Golden Rule for the dying scene: Do unto others
as little as possible. By which I mean that the dying person consciously
try to arrange that his or her death - given the inescapable sadness of
the loss-to-be – be as little pain as humanly possible to the survivors.
Along with this Golden Rule for dying there is the copper-plated injunction:
Die in a manner so that the reviews of your death speak to your better
self (as a courtier distinguished by grace) rather than as a plebeian
marked by coarseness and complaint. Have your dying be a courtly death,
among the best things that you ever did. It is your last chance to get
your neuroses under partial control.
Many of these criteria we cannot control, but there are those we can, simply
by the way we live our lives. We can be
Complete by resolving conflicts as they arise and never taking for granted we’ll
have another chance. And we can be
Prepared by communicating our wishes regarding healthcare decisions, disposition
of estate, burial arrangements and clear instructions for all other “necessary
legalities”. This is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the
people who will miss you most. This is living well – no matter how,
when or where you die.
Sylvia Thompson is a certified life care manager and care consultant with LivHOME in Los
Angeles. Sylvia is a member of the Torrance Memorial Professional Advisory Council. www.livhome.com. (323) 933-5880.