Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well
by Glen E. Miller
Herald Press, 2014, 180 pp.
In his recently published book, Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well, Dr. Glen Miller addresses many of the questions that are common to those in the latter half of life: “How will I die? Will I have a good death? Will I suffer? How will my family respond? How can we manage the dying process better?” With compassion honed by serving overseas among the poor, and practical ideas gleaned from his medical practice, Glen provides rich guidance to aging persons to live more fully and to proactively plan for a good death. The following excerpts are from Glen’s book.
Leaning Forward as Death Approaches
Many elderly people, when asked what they would do if they had their lives to live over, reply that they would take more risks, pursue relationships at deeper levels, and find ways to express their creative side. Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have said, “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us.”
Marilyn [Glen’s wife] and I decided we wanted to release the “music still inside us.” At age fifty-nine, I left medical practice and we went to India as volunteers to work with a team of Indians to bring a better life to the people there. This made no sense to my medical colleagues who pointed out that my prestige and income were at their peak. But in those seven years in India, our horizons expanded in so many ways: we experienced true hospitality, learned the joy of small successes, and took great pleasure in deep relationships with people of a vastly different culture. At the end of each week we had the satisfying feeling that we were making a difference. We felt alive and invigorated.
In his last chapter, Glen outlines his hopes and expectations for a good death.
A Good Death
Twenty years ago our family of children and grandchildren, separated by thousands of miles, first gathered for a week of fun and food and games. The first year there were eleven of us, this year, twenty-two. The week is a high priority for everyone and it is rare that anyone misses. Cousins start each week right where they left off twelve months before. Marilyn and I take great delight in seeing our four children and their mates “uncle-ing and aunt-ing” nieces and nephews.
I want my time of dying to be a time of strengthening these family bonds. So my primary goal in planning for a good death is to preserve and even enhance the relationships among the members of my family. I want to avoid the trap of becoming self-absorbed in my illness; rather, I want to continue to be a caring husband and a loving father and grandfather. I recognize that the way I die, not what I die from, will either add or detract from the ability of my family to continue to be a family.
I am confident that at the time of my dying, my family will provide the physical, emotional, and spiritual comfort for my needs. My confidence is based on the fact that we have discussed limits to my care and the importance of quality of life in considering life-extending measures. My family knows that I don’t want my dying process extended and I don’t want to leave a financial burden for my family. In place of frustrations, I hope that my dying will be a time of calmness and even serenity because of the planning that has gone on before.
I expect that at the time of my dying, I will be treated with the same dignity accorded to me throughout life. To me, this means that my opinion will be sought if I still have my mental faculties. I recall the time many years earlier when my siblings and I sat at a table discussing my father’s future housing and medical needs. My father sat alone on the other side of the large dining room, ignored. I remember that picture with deep regret.
I will not seek to prolong my life when the quality of my life is diminished, for I have seen patients in their last days treated more as an inanimate object and less as a human being. I see no need to squeeze out a few more days or weeks of life when organ systems are failing and I am only intermittently aware of those around me. I hope that my dying will not be seen as a failure of medical science but rather a successful transition to the next life.
If my dying circumstances permit, I want to die at home with the possibility of a proper goodbye to each family member and close friends.
I expect that my dying will be treated as the spiritual event that it is. My four months with the Benedictine monks showed me the emphasis the Benedictines place on spirituality as the center of the dying process. In that view, death is a transition from this life to another—not an end, but a continuation. Unlike the medical model that views death as failure, death can become more like a graduation. Like the Benedictines, I want to be able to say goodbye to members of my religious community, and through them to receive the assurance of God’s unconditional love and provision for life after this life.