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Why Do We Use the Phrase "A Good Death"?

Many authors and thought leaders in the dying and death arena have written about the concept of ‘a good death.’ The notion of a ‘good death’ gets a lot of airtime on social media. There are 4,440, 000,000 results on Google when you search “what is a good death.” But have you ever really explored what a “good” death means to you? I mean really explore it through your own life experience, culture, spiritual beliefs, assumptions, biases, fears, etc.?

It was a question I needed to delve into when I first started serving families…and it took me a long time to conceptualize. But I have to say, whether I have the answers to the question or not, exploring this concept made a big difference for me in remaining in a neutral state when dealing with dying, death, and grief. Regardless of whether I am providing support through vigilling at the bedside or holding space for the birth of a baby born still.


I waded into this question by reading perspectives on dying & death by Jenkinson, Callanan, Halifax, Byock, Virago, and so many other amazing authors and leaders in the death space. I explored it sitting vigil at many a bedside. I embraced the term; I rejected it. Sometimes the concept felt too simple, too idyllic, too fraught with qualifiers and consequences. Maybe we should be using the word dying “wise” or “well” instead of “good.” I certainly want a “good” death; I absolutely don’t want a “bad” death (whatever either of those mean).


When I pivoted from death doula support to become an infant and pregnancy loss doula, the concept of a “good death” challenged me again. The literature I reviewed generally defined a ‘good death’ for an infant as, “perception of a good death is enhanced when the suffering is reduced.” Thus, a good death is focused on the alleviation of suffering for the baby and its family.


Determined to discover the answer to this question for myself, I pondered the following questions:

  • Why do we use the phrase “good” death?

  • What does a “good” death mean--emotionally, physically, mentally, dpiritually, in our relationship to society?

  • Where did that concept come from? Where are its roots in the culture and in society? Does it exist in other cultures? How about ancient cultures?

  • Who defines a “good” death--the dying person (we are all actively dying, but I mean the person who is experiencing it), the caregivers/loved ones, the medical system, the spiritual framework that you base your beliefs on, a “Guru” in the dying and death arena, society, academics in the field?

  • Is a “good” death based on the absence of distress and suffering? And if so, what aspects of the different parts of ourselves dictate the suffering?

  • Can one learn to have a “good” death? If the dying person approached their death with acceptance and grace, would that bring them closer to a “good” death?

  • Why is a “good” death important to me, my family, the medical system, and society?

  • Can you plan for a “good” death? How can you do that? What are the failsafes to ensure that happens? What are the consequences if the plan does not materialize in the active dying process?

  • What are the consequences of not having a “good death”? Explore fear, punishment, retribution, failure, disappointment, etc.

  • If there is such a thing as a “good” death, then there must be a polar opposite. So, what is a “bad” death?

  • Does a “bad” death include suffering, pain, vulnerability, lingering, separation, shame, and loss of control, etc.? Or are all those things just part of dying?

  • What if a “good” person has a “bad” death (whatever your definition is for both concepts)? Does it have to do with Karma, or your moral character?

  • Is it the dying process or the actual death event that is “bad”? or “good”? What if the dying process was “good” and the death was “bad”? How would you know; who would determine? What are the consequences?

  • Does the physical manner of death determine whether it was “good” or bad? If one person died quietly in their bed from heart failure and one person was burned to death, is one “good” and “bad”? Why?

  • How does carrying the concept of a “good” death affect our dying process or our belief in what happens after we die?

  • If death and birth are bookends to our life, natural transitions…is there also a “good” birth and “bad” birth?

  • How is the concept of a “good” death different and/or the same for a being in advanced age and one who is young?

  • Is the concept of a “good” death only related to death in advanced age?

  • If we released any qualifications or expectations of the dying process/death, what would that be like?

  • Can you live with no control, prediction, or expectation of outcome in regard to your dying process and your death? Can you live in the mystery of death? If so, why? If not, why not? What are the consequences and results?

  • In countries where there are extremely high rates of mortality, war, extreme violence, and daily suffering, do people use the phrase “good” death?

  • Is there a purpose to suffering?

  • Does the death-phobic culture that we live in constitute the need for the concept of a “good” death? Does the concept lessen the fear of dying and death?

The very deepest questions about who we are and what life and death means are to me a mystery. I never actually figured out what a “good” death was, but I hope to have time to ponder it a whole lot longer. Thomas Merton said:

“We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us.”

I expect it will reveal itself to me one day. When my time comes, I endeavour to embrace my death with an open heart as I aspire to embrace my life.


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Kelly Hurley is a HHA graduate and has an infant and pregnancy loss doula (IPLD) practice in British Columbia. You can learn more about her at https://www.withgracepregnancyinfantlossceremonies.com/

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