My husband’s beloved older brother passed away on Christmas morning.
Many people might think a death on Christmas Day would taint the holiday, bringing up an unpleasant and unwelcome memory year after year.
But we believe future Christmases will actually be more special and meaningful, and we can feel this way because my brother-in-law not only lived a purposeful and rewarding life, but he died a good death.
What is a good death? In my mind, it’s about being at home, as comfortable as possible, and surrounded by friends and family. In my last moments I want to see what is familiar and soothing; hear music or soft voices talking and laughing; smell the delicious aromas of favorite foods; feel the warm, caring touch of loved ones.
During my nursing career, I’ve seen too many patients die either alone in a sterile hospital room filled with beeping machines and the stink of disinfectant, or surrounded by doctors and nurses armed with all sorts of painful, futile interventions. We call these “ugly” deaths.
My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer just over a year ago. Modern medicine gave him an extra year, a great year which allowed him to spend quality time with his family and his many, many friends.
But a few weeks ago the cancer got the upper hand and his health began to fail. His wife didn’t hesitate to ask for help, and everyone was ready to do anything and everything they could to ease him through his final days.
Hospice provided a hospital bed in his home, kept him comfortable, and provided invaluable guidance to his wife about what to expect in the days to come. Friends and family ran errands, took care of the animals, made phone calls, helped with his daily physical needs, and brought food. Oh, the mountains of food!
We spent Christmas Eve at his house, knowing we were saying goodbye. As we took turns sitting by his bed, holding his hand, it began to snow. Isn’t there something magical about snow? It transforms the most mundane landscape into something beautiful, and invokes a hushed stillness, a tranquility akin to prayer.
What struck me most that afternoon, however, was the constant movement of people coming and going, talking, crying and laughing. My brother-in-law was an exuberant and unfailingly helpful man. He was a church leader, a volunteer firefighter and EMT, and devoted husband, father, brother, son and uncle. He gave so much to his community, and now the community gave back to him with just as much enthusiasm, kindness and grace.
It made me reflect on my own circle of friends, and how I might better nurture those relationships, or seek out ways to widen that circle and follow my brother-in-law’s example. Those are big shoes to fill, but I’ve learned over the years that a good death takes a community of helpers. None of us should try to do it alone.
On Christmas morning we received the call that he had passed away. Although we are sad, achingly so, we are comforted in knowing he died in his own home, surrounded by his family and friends. I hope he felt us holding his hand. I hope he heard us telling stories, singing and laughing. I hope he smelled all the amazing food that people brought and piled in the kitchen.
I hope he knew how much he was loved and how much he will be missed.