Dying and dignity: Finding a good death in the story of our lives

We all wish for a good life – and we try to imagine what a good death would be.

A good death may be one where we are able to have some control over how we die. What would be a part of a good death?  What would you want to do with your last moments of life? There may be so many things running through your mind … but would one of them be sharing time with your family and friends?

How, and when, would you want to say goodbye?

NPR recently featured as story about a hospice in St. Louis that gives clients the opportunity to not only say goodbye but to leave a legacy of their lives, their stories.

The St. Louis program, Lumina at BJC hospice, has 25 volunteers or storytellers who interview hospice clients to put together photos, CD’s and other items to create stories and legacies not just for family  members but everyone.

In a research article published in the Journal of Medical Humanities David Schneck and Lori Roscoe suggest that telling one’s life story may be the best way to provide someone with closure in their death. Telling their story would highlight their existence and give purpose and meaning to their life. Knowing that others will be able to see their story can relieve some of the pain that is part of the process of dying.

The work of bringing narrative to the end of one’s life is a part of easing our concerns with death, isolation, loss of freedom and meaninglessness (which Irvin Yalom identified as the four great concerns of life).  When the volunteers at Lumina and other hospice centers across the country sit with clients to help them bring together the pieces of their lives, it helps them to gain purpose and meaning.

Volunteer Susan Kissinger of Lumina gave one woman not only the opportunity to share her story but to potentially help others be with those that are dying. Courtney Strain died at the age of 25 from brain cancer at the hospice. She, along with the help of family and Kissinger, wrote a short guide for those who have family and friends at the end of life. The guide is titled:

Helping A Loved One Face The End Of Life 

Here are things she wanted others to know:

  • Hallmark doesn’t fix it all. … Write a letter or send an email. … [Talk to me when] I’m strong enough to sit and laugh or cry with you …
  • Don’t pretend that everything is going to be OK.
  • Don’t abandon me at my most vulnerable time. … Sit and pray with me. Don’t just pray for me.
  • Don’t treat me like a child –  even a well-loved child. … Include me in decisions that affect our family or social group …
  • Instead of asking, “What can I do for you?” offer some concrete suggestions –  like bringing a meal or treat, or running errands …
  • Respect my decisions about my health care – my doctors, my medications and my treatments – and about my end-of-life plans …
  • Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of being your friend. Dying isn’t my whole identity.


Yalom adds in his book Staring at the Sun that connection is paramount in dying. The shared art of writing one’s legacy creates a connection between the hospice client and their volunteer. Storytelling weaves a connection between them and their family and is Courtney’s case, a connection to the community around her.

Being able to tell one’s story at the end of their may not be an option for many, but given the opportunity it a gift such as the one offered by Courtney can contribute to our universal understanding of the meaning of dying. That link between death and dying can enhance our own ability to manage our deaths with dignity.

 — Makenna Berry

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