A Good Death

I was raised more by my grandparents in all the ways that count.  My grandfather was the one who taught me how to open a peanut and my grandmother knew the name of every boy I liked.  Together they helped me fill in the blanks when it comes to how to live a good life to the end.

I guess it was because of my attachment to them, I jumped at the chance to be a candy striper in a nursing home when I was 13.  (OK, yes, for those of you who really know me, it was also because of the cute, little, red uniform with the big pockets I got to wear.  Red is my favorite color and I felt important wearing something official.)     

I made friends at the nursing home.  Many of them.  There was Bessie who wouldn’t let anybody but me brush her hair because she was sure the nurses were stealing from her.  Mr. Gotch from New Orleans, who was there to lose weight because as a hemophiliac, he had almost died stubbing a toe he could no longer see.  There was Mr. Ford, who couldn’t speak, but settled down when I read to him.  And Nora whom I would feed, as she had long since lost the ability to hold a fork or spoon.  

My elderly friends taught me that death, like every stage of life, is something we know is coming but we don’t know how it is going to feel.

Until it happens, no one knows what it feels like to fall in love for the first time, or take your father’s arm as he begins to walk you down the aisle.  We don’t know how our heart will leap when we hear our baby laugh or how it will melt every time they reach for us.  Each stage is brand new.

Dying is like that, too.

What older people feel toward the end of their lives is new and like everything else that counts, it changes them.  They are no longer how we remember them because while we have two feet in this life, they have one foot in the next.  And like all things, it’s a process.

They like to talk about the past.  It’s as if they need to organize their memories in the retelling, like putting pictures into an imaginary album in sequential order to give them substance.  You hear things like, “When I was little my family would sit around the table and we would string popcorn and cranberries to decorate the Christmas tree and we had a piano in the parlor!  We’d sit around that parlor and sing show tunes.  Did you know my sister and I rode a burro to school and my father carved roses into the leather on the bottom of our shoes so we would leave roses in the sand everywhere we walked, and . . . ”  There is always an “and.”  One memory births another.   Their eyes light up when they talk about them as their brain reviews what only they can see.

A good death requires you to talk less and listen more, even when the story being told is one you’ve heard before.  For them it is new in the retelling.  Telling stories is their way of packing up the memories in this life to take them to the next.   

Older people are curious about what is to come.  Well meaning family members don’t want to talk about death and quickly change the subject.  But they keep circling back, wanting to talk about it.  They want to be reassured.  They want to talk about God.  They want to make peace before they die and they need us to be present to do it.  They appear to be confused when they hear people say, “The doctor says you’re going to be fine.”  They know that’s not true and they’re disappointed when they can’t share with you what what’s really going on because it’s too difficult for you to bear.       

A good death requires everyone to be on the same page and to be OK with it.  

When my father died he had been sick.  They wanted to transfer him to hospice but I was adamant that I would not approve the transfer until they brought him around so I could discuss it with him.  It was his death, after all.  Not mine.  And he needed to be the one to make the decision.

I remember telling him what was wrong with him.  I had the doctor there in case he had questions.  This is the way my dad would want it because it was the way he faced everything.  Head on.  I told him this was something we were going to do together and we were going somewhere where he would not have to struggle for every breath.  Where it was clean and quiet.  Where there would be no more tests where we’d have to pack him up to wheel him down the hall.  A place where I could comfortably stay beside him.  No more machines.  No needles, poking, prodding, or struggling.   Just peace and quiet in a comfortable bed where they would make his pain go away.

A single tear rolled down his check, and he said, “You know, it’s not so bad when you get your brain around it.”  He raised his hand and I grasped it.  His grip was strong.  I felt like we were comrades in arms, preparing to do battle.  This was the last part of his journey here on earth and we were determined to face it together.

A good death requires the people around you to talk about death so the journey can be shared.

Older people tire easily.  Too much commotion can be a source of anxiety for them because they don’t want to disappoint the people they love.  How often I would hear families trying to make conversation saying, “Granny, do you remember Dave?  Sure you do.  He was so nice to you.  Dave was the man who fixed your roof after Grandad passed.  Well, he just had a baby and his wife . . .” 

Their eyes dart back and forth trying to recall.  They see the worried expressions on the faces of the people they love so they nod their heads up and down as if they’re remembering something they don’t.  They desperately want to please the people they love by keeping up with the conversation and eating that special special treat they brought that they purportedly loved, but don’t remember, as their taste for food is often long since gone.

They are in the process of changing while we’re still the same.  The antics of the newest great-grandchild, who is wiggling around, is taxing for them.  Visits should be less intense and more frequent.  We need to enter their world and not expect them to keep up with ours. 

A good death requires the family to understand they are there to help them let go, not engage them. 

More visits, fewer people.  Keeping things quiet.  Letting them talk.  And most important, being there so with our prayers they might have a good Christian ending to their lives; painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the Lord.  

Mrs. Monomakhos




  1. I lost my stepfather not long ago. It’s been a stressful year, and I needed a few tears. Thank you Gail.

  2. Very nice piece, Gail. May I ask, what prompted this? 

  3. I’m 83 and heading down that trail.  Many years ago,  I listened to a father who had lost two sons.  He said, “When my first son died I started wondering about eternity. Then another son died and all I think about is eternity with God.”
    As the years roll by I find myself remembering his thoughts and wondering.  I also think about the first line in Compline in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”  I can’t count the times I have prayed that prayer.  And I loved the expression I learned from friends in another country where I used to live.  When someone died they said,  “He woke up dead.”   Where will I be when I wake up dead?

    • Gail Sheppard says

      RE: “Where will I be when I wake up dead?”

      I guess it depends on where you want to be when you wake up. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye. shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh. findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Matthew 7:7-8

      That prayer you recite countless times sounds like you’re doing the asking. God can be trusted.

    • Lina,
      We Orthodox say we “fall asleep in the Lord”.  We “awaken” as disembodied souls in the afterlife.  Read the parable of the Last Judgment.  Make sure that you are treating the less fortunate well, that is the main point.  “As you have done to the least of these . . .”.  
      If you feel you have time and the inclination, you may want to investigate Holy Orthodoxy.  I don’t think there is a guarantee regarding heaven, or a litmus test for hell for that matter; however, the Church is the pillar and ground of Truth.
      In St. Paul’s monastery on Mt. Athos is an inscription:
      “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”
      We all face death and those who read scripture know about the Second Death as well.  To have victory over the passions in Christ is to escape the peril and jeopardy of the Second Death.  It is illumination and deification and the closer we come to it in this life the easier for us in the particular judgment immediately after death and at the Last Judgment.
      I pray that when it is your time you enjoy a heavenly bliss for all eternity with Christ and the Saints.
      Until then, may God grant you many years.

  4. Christine Fevronia says

    “Is death the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening.” Sir Walter Scott. Well written piece, Gail. Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Michael Bauman says

    My late wife was not old but death got her anyway. As she lay dying, our priest and several fellow parishiners were singing prayers. She was annoited with myrrh from St Walburga of Eichstadt. One of her favorites.
    Right before she was pronounced my son and I each saw, we found out later, her angel come for here. About 35 days later during the Paschal Liturgy, I saw her being raised with Jesus as we sang, Christ is risen!

    “What dreams may come when we shuffle off this mortal coil must give us pause”. Still we can live and die in the sure and certain hope of the Resurection.

  6. George Michalopulos says

    Thank you all for your enconia to Gail for writing this peace.  

    Truth be told, we went to a funeral in Oklahoma City on Saturday, where a dear friend reposed in her sleep.  She had been fighting cancer for several years and had seemingly beat it and all was going well.  She was a beautiful person from the inside, which radiated outwardly.

    Gail, my sister and I had attended and as we were talking in the car on the way home, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, the seeds for this wonderful, touching essay germinated in Gail’s mind during said trip.  Anyway, Sunday evening she started writing and asked me to look at it, so I did on Monday and said “go for it!”

    If I may go further on the limb here, I think that COVID has been a gigantic “reset” button.  It has certainly gotten many of us to think of the final journey (or at least see that much of the beauty of this world has been stripped from it).  Either way, it’s proof that God is merciful.

  7. Beautifully written Gail. Death is ignored or worshipped in our pagan culture. Thank you for your sobering reflection. “Trampling down death by death” is truly a mystery! 

  8. Gail, this is book material.  I have never read a more helpful intructional on how to deal with their deaths, anyone near to me, young or old that cast their situation so clearly.  Until you do develop this further into a brochure, I will print it out in brochure form to be able to read often.  This is priceless!  Thank you so much for putting it down here.

  9. V.REV. Fr. Wayne Wilson says

    Thank you Gail for sharing. And thank you for being with me when my
    sweet wife was laid to rest almost three years ago.  Never told you but at the hospital after we
    prayed prayers of departure………she smiled.
    She was as beautiful in death as she was in life.

    • Gail Sheppard says

      I was so glad I was able to there with you.

      Kh. Lynn was such an inspiration for me, especially in the way she faced her illness and in her passing. Even Metropolitan Joseph has remarked about it. Such courage and such grace. It does not surprise me a bit that she smiled when you prayed the prayers of departure.

      Something I haven’t shared with you is that the day she passed I saw this vision of fluttering confetti coming down from heaven like tiny butterflies, all in that danish blue and white (like her china) that she loved so much. That’s how I knew it was from her. I then received the news and, of course, I wanted to be with you.

      I think of her often, Father, and George and I pray for you daily. – It is so good to hear from you. Thank you for what you did for me. I would not have been able to make the transition into the Church without you.

      God willing, we will see eachother again soon.

  10. George Michalopulos says

    The other day, Eddie Van Halen, certainly one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, passed away. I actually got to see the band (with David Lee Roth) play in Tulsa several years ago. He was –phenomenal.

    Here is a tribute to him from Dr Steve Turley:https://youtu.be/M5XZIb2_CgQ

    Oh, an Kamala Harris just had her ass handed to her by Ace Bannon last night.