by Dr. William B. Knippa
I was diagnosed several months ago with a terminal illness. I think I’m over the initial shock of hearing that news. I have wonderful family support, and I know heaven is waiting for me, but I’m still scared. I’ve heard people talk about dying a “good death” or “dying well.” What does that mean, and how can I do it?
Yes, heaven is waiting for you. This affirmation gives witness to your faith and is the source of great comfort and strength. On your journey through your illness, you may also experience a variety of other thoughts and emotions. Know that our Lord understands these and walks with you through them.
The phrases “good death” and “dying well” might be troubling to some (how can death be “good”?), but properly understood, they do address important issues. Most often, they mean to die at peace, with one’s wishes around the dying process fulfilled (e.g., little or no pain, surrounded by loved ones). Toward that end, I encourage you to consider certain tasks to “get your house in order.” Addressing these might seem overwhelming, but it will be a gift to your loved ones when they find themselves facing decisions when the time comes.
The tasks include preparing, or updating, your will, as well as an Advance Directive for Health Care, in which you indicate your wishes concerning medical treatment should you become unable to make decisions. Talk with your pastor about the hymns and Scripture readings you would like for your funeral. So there are no “surprises” for those who will be responsible for your financial affairs, organize information about your bank accounts and life-insurance policies. You might also prepare a written summary that includes practical items such as the names of your auto mechanic and other service people, where you keep grocery coupons, how often you mow the lawn, etc.
A practice gaining popularity is to develop an “ethical will”—perhaps videotaped—in which you lay out the values, dreams, and hopes you have for your life and for your loved ones.
For Christians, the essence of “dying well” means dying in the faith of our Baptism. At that time, as St. Paul says, you were “united with Him in a death like His” in order that you might be “united with Him in His resurrection.” Availing yourself of His body and blood regularly around the table with your fellow believers is a sign and seal that not even death can separate you from God’s love.