“A Good Death” - Comfort care at the end of life

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The sense of hearing is the last to go.

“A Good Death”

A Good Death: Comfort care at end of life: Easing the transition from life to death with one’s passions - something that means a great deal to the dying - a prayer, a football game, favorite tv program, music…


(Note: all names and places have been changed)


Agnes was an irascible curmudgeon of a woman. She was in her late 80’s, and so tiny that her feet didn’t touch the floor when sitting on the side of her nursing home bed. When I arrived, she was swinging her legs, much like a child pumping their legs to make the swing go higher.  She looked up at me.

“Who are you and what are you doing in my room? “she shouted. 

“I am so sick and tired of people coming in and out of this room and asking me personal questions - Did you pee? Did you poop? Do you have any pain? I want you all to leave. At this point she pointed to me, and said, “Especially you!” 

I didn’t have time to introduce myself, so I used an honest ploy when I asked her if I could sit down in the armchair next to her bed for a minute, as I had been running around and my feet were tired and hurting. She hesitated, nodded yes, but kept pointing at her wristwatch, briskly timing me.

“It’s 30 seconds now, are you going to get ready to leave?”

“Well, my feet are a bit better, but I think I’ll take the whole minute if you don’t mind.” 

“Oh, I mind”, she replied, still swinging her legs and tapping her wristwatch. With 5 seconds left

I slowly got up, put on my coat and grabbed my purse.

“Alright. Minute is up. Get out.”

As I sauntered toward the door, I turned and nonchalantly asked,

“By the way, where are you from?”

She immediately pulled her legs up from the side of the bed and lay on her side, curled in a fetal position, her hands tucked under her cheek like a child waiting to hear a bedtime story.

“Castlerock” she responded, which I knew was an upscale spot on the water. They had a family compound there. She spoke non-stop for two hours, fascinating me with an unusual, privileged life. I asked if she would like me to return the next week.

“No, no I have nothing else left to say.”  But she did.  

Every Friday for over six months she regaled me with journeys around the world, a celebrity’s birthday party and every Broadway musical of her time. She was a virtual history book. I brought my iPad in and every week we watched her favorite movies. Her very favorite was Shirley Temple in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. We would sit on her bed and play it over and over, singing along with Shirley. Her least favorite was The Rat Pack, some of whom she had met. She didn’t like them because they were drinkers and “womanizers” and she refused to listen to their music.

With July came time for my yearly trip to Italy and I promised I would return to our customary Friday visits upon my return; however, I found myself in the neighborhood of the nursing home on a Thursday. In an effort to surprise her, I stopped in unplanned and unannounced. When I exited the elevator, the front desk nurse motioned to me.

“Agnes is actively dying.”

She didn’t have any close, living relatives, never married and had no children. All she had were memories and my presence on a day I never visited.  We know that hearing is the last sense to go and with that knowledge I spoke to her as I always did, despite the morphine drip that had rendered her seemingly unconscious. I chided myself that I had forgotten my iPad and asked the nurse if there was any music in the activities room. I wanted Agnes to have a dignified death. The nurse returned with an old boom box with a CD of The Rat Pack!  Thankfully Agnes had chosen to speak and I to listen.

I was frantic.

“She hates the Rat Pack. She told me. They are womanizers. She absolutely cannot die listening to that music.”

Time was short.  I was in a panic. Fortunately, I remembered I had my iPhone!

I spooned Agnes in her bed and put my iPhone on her pillow between our two heads. As the music "On The Good Ship Lollipop" played, she managed a small smile and began to mouth the lyrics as we both seemed to hold our collective breaths. I exhaled. She didn't. I love a good death.   

Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. She is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI, and a professor in the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences at Johnson & Wales University. For more information, go to: http://gracepointegrief.com/