“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Death isn’t always unsettling. As a hospital chaplain, I have walked into many patient rooms where death was described as a “best outcome” or an “end of suffering” by the medical team. Often, the patient agrees.
I was once paged to visit a patient who was described as “fearing death” by the medical team. When I arrived, the patient asked me bluntly, “What’s taking so long? I thought it would happen more quickly.”
I was taken aback by the patient’s question, not only because I had been summoned as a religious professional to answer it but also because the medical team had really misunderstood the patient. She wasn’t expressing fear about death, but rather acceptance, curiosity, and some anticipatory anxiety. She was set up for a good death.
Of course, during the pandemic, death has been unsettling and far from good. There has been so much of it: the official figure from the CDC is 780,131 deaths as of today. But that number doesn’t capture all COVID-19 deaths, and it especially doesn’t account for the deaths that occurred because our hospital system was too burdened to treat non-COVID illnesses and traumatic accidents.
Even though the number is incomplete, it is still so large that we can only think about it in the abstract. It is a hard number to make meaningful on a personal level. When I try to make this number personal, I think about the shift where I attended 9 deaths. I think about the families I escorted to the COVID ICU for their final goodbyes. I think about the patients who had only me at their bedside when they died.
We often try to find meaning in death, whether it is fast or slow, overwhelming and abstract, or intimate and personal. But it is so much easier for us to find meaning in the latter — the moments that are shared, the memories that are recounted, the goodbyes that get to be said. We might even call these deaths good.
In this season of advent when we are surrounded by so much unsettling death, let us recall those deaths that are good. They were anticipated, they spark our curiosity about our own lives and God’s hope for us, and they were met with acceptance. These good deaths remind us of our own mortality and prompt us to review our lives: How are we spending our precious time? Do our lives reflect our values? What parts of ourselves do we want to leave here for others when we die?
The good death sparks life in those who witness it. It is re-settling rather than unsettling.
Rev. Kristel Clayville, PhD, is a lecturer of technology ethics at the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Computer Science, adjunct lecturer in the Department of Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, a senior fellow at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, a 2019-2021 Sinai and Synapses Fellow, and adjunct faculty of Christian ethics at Lexington Theological Seminary.