Why a Good Death Requires a Good Life
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from John P. Weiss.
My wife Nicole knows a great deal about death.
She’s a hospice nurse who provides care and comfort for those nearing the end of life’s journey. She also helps loved ones navigate a constellation of mixed feelings, from fear and confusion to acceptance and even relief.
Nicole took time away from work when her grandmother’s cancer, after years of successful management, finally unleashed its fatal agenda. And then Nicole’s grandfather fell ill with lung cancer. Again, she stepped in to provide end-of-life care.
Nicole tells me that in those final moments for patients and their loved ones, conversations are about love, memories, sometimes regrets, and heartfelt goodbyes. There is no talk about bigger houses, fancy cars, the latest tech gear, and all the other stuff people eventually pour into their garages and storage units.
Death is a profound teacher, but no one wants to enroll in the class.
We spend our lives pursuing money and possessions, only to discover late in the game that relationships, experiences, and passions best feed our souls. If only we figured out sooner what really matters.
If only we learned early on that a good death demands a good life.
We are not going gently into that good night
Columbia University physician Lydia S. Dugdale is a specialist in medical ethics and the treatment of older patients. Dugdale’s book, “The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom,” argues that far too many of us die poorly.
Dr. Dugdale’s book was inspired by an ancient text, written in the Middle Ages after the Black Plague. The text, known as Ars moriendi — The Art of Dying, inspires the view that to die well requires first that we live well.
A review of Dr. Dugdale’s book in BookBrowse.com notes:
“Our culture has overly medicalized death: dying is often institutional and sterile, prolonged by unnecessary resuscitations and other intrusive interventions. We are not going gently into that good night — our reliance on modern medicine can actually prolong suffering and strip us of our dignity. Yet our lives do not have to end this way.”
Part of the problem is that we don’t want to think about death, so we don’t plan and prepare. We put off creating trusts, living wills, and end-of-life health directives.
Even worse, our refusal to ponder and face mortality prevents us from living our best lives. We place too much importance on money, status, and possessions over our health, relationships, and serving others.
This is where minimalism and simplicity can help. By simplifying our lives and shedding the things we don’t need, we can focus more on the important stuff.
Dr. Dugdale notes in her book:
“In fact, since you can’t take it with you and your world will shrink one day anyway, start the habit now of giving your stuff away.”
There’s nothing wrong with ambition and success, but to live a good life, we ought to embrace the Latin reminder Momento mori, which means, “Remember you must die.”
It may sound depressing, but it’s liberating.
Because when we take a hard look at our lives, we begin to see the burdens we carry. Ballooning mortgages, endless car payments, credit card debt, stuffed garages, and more.
Deep personal reflection leads to other insights. Like the immense time we waste on social media distractions, Cable news hysteria, unhealthy diets, and poor lifestyle choices.
What would our lives look like if we abandoned these things and focused instead on our health, relationships, education, creative passions, and helping others?
We discovered that less is more
In 2016 I was a busy law enforcement professional, serving my tenth year as Chief of Police and 26th year in police work. I enjoyed my career but grew weary of the stress and politics.
Nicole’s work stories and experiences with her grandparents reminded me how short life is. Despite having only five years left to earn a full pension, I decided to retire early. I wanted more family time and to pursue my writing.
To compensate for the reduced income of early retirement, we embraced minimalism. We sold our home, moved to a more affordable state, and downsized.
Decluttering, adopting a simplified wardrobe, and shedding unnecessary stuff improved our quality of life. My flexible schedule as a writer allowed for more exercise, walks with my dogs, reading, and leisurely conversations with Nicole and our son.
We discovered that less is more. Little did we know how the positive changes in our lives would prepare us for what came next.
Start living our best lives
In 2021 Nicole found a lump in her breast, and doctors confirmed it was breast cancer. We found ourselves thinking about Momento mori every day.
The entire year was a flurry of appointments, tests, surgeries, follow-ups, and healing. Thankfully, the cancer was caught early, and Nicole’s prognosis is excellent.
To celebrate her recovery, we traveled this year to Scotland. We toured all over, visiting the Highlands, boating down lochs, exploring castles, and enjoying the country and its lovely people.
A good death demands a good life. The warm memories of our Scotland trip reflect the best of life.
There was a moment in Scotland when Nicole stood on an old bridge, looking down at the flowing river below. Water under the bridge, just like the troubles and challenges we had overcome.
The scene moved me, and I snapped a photograph of that beautiful moment.
The photo is a reminder that when we simplify, declutter, and accept Momento mori, we can shed the burdens we carry. We can chart a better future.
We can start living our best lives.
John P. Weiss is a fine artist, retired police chief, and author of “What Life Should Be About: Elegant Essays on the Things That Matter.” He blogs about living a more artful life.