In Search of a Good Death
So what is a good death?
Changing societal attitudes to death and dying
Dr Michael Barbato
Dr Frank Brennan
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminski
Professor Roderick MacLeod
The prime focus of In Search of a Good Death is palliative care, comfort and meaning at life’s end. It has been said that we live in a death-denying society. As one of the interviewees in this first program says: dying is the price we pay for living! So we begin in this first program with a look at societal attitudes to death and dying, and then place this in the context of hospice and palliative care services.
Hospice care stems back to an ancient tradition – a monastic vocation of offering rest, safety and care to travellers needing respite from their arduous and in some cases perilous journey. Though modern hospice care may seem far removed from the origins of the name it bears, in one particular sense, it is in clear continuity with its namesake.
Many modern authors bemoan the tendency of our culture to deny, sanitize and medicalize death and dying. This tendency has been described as a ‘death neurosis’ and euphemisms like ‘the passing of…’ (instead of saying a person has died) have been cited as indicative of a society attempting to assuage its anxiety of death and elude the confronting reality of human mortality.
And this may be partially true. We may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security by overestimating the capacity of medicine, and through all the means of affluence we now have, to insulate ourselves from most things ugly, distasteful, harmful and dangerous. And yes, perhaps we’ve created the illusion that life is far less fragile than it actually is.
Notwithstanding these tendencies, it is also natural for us to want to postpone our death for as long as possible. A key factor of human resilience is surely that our thinking is far more oriented to living and future, than to dying, death, and our mortality?
Not only do we have a strong instinct of survival, but also the means to pursue a longer life than was ever before possible. And who would argue that we shouldn’t endeavour to find cures for cancer, means of anti-ageing, and lives less shortened by preventable disease.
Maybe hospice is where we can be cushioned and comforted in the unfortunate and unexpected event of us succumbing to a terminal illness. Is it here that we can find the help we need to face what we are perhaps ill-prepared for psychologically and emotionally in our world and lives of such optimism and future time orientation. Hospice may offer that timeless embrace of safety, support, respite, and even hope, when we find that our human journey, though begun with such aspiration, encounters unanticipated peril along the way.
1. Is our culture capable of approaching dying and death with greater acceptance, without compromising its capacity for progress, prosperity, and reasonable affluence?
2. Can it be a legitimate role of hospice to provide solace, care, and psychological reorientation for those who must face the meaning and prognosis of a terminal illness?
3. To what extent have we overburdened medical science with the expectation that it should relieve our suffering, prolong our lives, and prevent our death?
Dr John Ashfield
In Search of a Good Death