The Hard Work of Dying

Simplifying, forgiving, and letting go—Stan Goldberg, author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life, on working toward a good death.

Imagine you’re preparing for a trip to a foreign country and you’re limited to taking only what can be carried in a backpack. Your decisions on what to take and what to leave behind will determine the quality of your experience. Too many items and the weight will be burdensome. Not enough of the right ones and you might be forced to neglect some basic needs. We make decisions of this type regularly. Take what’s important, leave behind what isn’t. But we tend to be oblivious to the importance of these decisions for the most momentous journey of our life—our death.

As a bedside hospice volunteer, I’ve found that the ideas and emotions people carry with them through life often determine the quality of their death. I remember my patient Joyce saying, “Dying is such hard work.” For months, her physical condition had been declining steadily, so I assumed she was referring to her pulmonary problems. But then she said, “I’m not talking about what’s happening to my body.” Pointing to her head, she continued, “The hard work is what’s happening here.” For most people, this work falls into four categories: the difficulty of simplifying the present, forgiving the thoughtlessness…