Talking about death is hard. And usually it’s really, really hard. Maybe it’s because—much like the process of dying itself—it requires us to be vulnerable, to be honest, to come to terms with a denial we engage with, to varying degrees, our whole lives.
“Death happens to everybody, yet somehow we’re surprised by it,” says hospice and palliative care specialist BJ Miller, MD. “I’m shocked at how many patients and family members have not only had to deal with the pain of sickness and loss, but on top of that they feel bad for feeling bad. They’re ashamed to be dying, ashamed to be sick. There’s a horrible unnecessary suffering that we heap on ourselves and each other for nothing.”
The more intimate we get with the idea of dying, the closer we come to folding it into the fabric of our daily lives, the better off we’ll all be, Miller says. Advice on how to die well is really no more than advice on how to live well, with that unavoidable reality in mind.
A Q&A with Dr. BJ Miller, MD
What is a good death?
It’s a deeply subjective question, and the best way I can answer objectively it is to say a good death is one that’s in keeping with who you are as a person; a good death is consonant with your life and your personality.
For example, most people say they want to die at home, that they want to be free from pain. That usually means not having a bunch of medical interventions happening at the end. Effort is put toward comfort instead. But I also know plenty of people who say, “No, no, no. I’m the kind of guy who wants to go down swinging,” or “I’m looking for a miracle,” or whatever it is. And for them, a good death may very well be in the ICU with all sorts of interventions happening, anything that’s going to give them a chance, because they see themselves as fighters and they want to go out fighting.
What’s the role of hope in dying?
Hope is a beautiful, powerful, and very useful force. It’s what gets most of us out of the bed in the morning. It’s not a question of whether or not you have hope; the question’s more: What do you hope for? The work is harnessing your hope for something that’s attainable or for something that serves you.
When I’m talking to a patient, and I ask them, “What do you hope for?” If they say, “Well, I hope to live forever,” we can label that a miracle pretty safely. I can say, “I’ll hope for that, too, but if we don’t get that, and if time is shorter than you want, then what do you hope for?” Because hope needs to be qualified. So they’ll say, “Ah, well, if I’m not going to be around much longer, well, then I really hope to make it to my grandson’s graduation in the summer,” or “I really hope to get through the World Series,” or whatever it is.
It’s tempting to say that hope is this thing that you either have or you don’t have. That when you don’t have it, then that’s like giving up or letting go. But it’s not. You can hope and understand you’re dying at the same time. It’s very possible when someone comes to terms with the fact that they’re dying soon, that they hope for a painless death, or they hope to die on a certain day. Those are realistic hopes; it’s a matter of channeling that big force.
In what ways is our health care system not equipped to handle dying well?
In the last hundred or so years, what’s become the norm for end-of-life care in the West is a very medicalized death. Hospitals and doctors have become arbiters of death; it used to be a much more mystical thing involving nature and family and culture. But of late, medicine in all of its power has co-opted the subject, and so most people look to their doctors and hospitals as places that forestall death.
We’re spending a lot of time—when it’s precious—in the hospital or at a doctor’s office. You spend a lot of time navigating medications. You’re spending a lot of time hanging on every word the doctor says. That’s a problem in that it’s not really what most of us want. But it goes that way because we’re afraid to confront the truth. We’re afraid to talk about it, so we all end up in a default mode. The default mode is in the hospital with a bunch of tubes and medicines and someone keeping your body alive at any cost. That has become the default death, and that’s not what most people would consider a good death.
How do you approach that conversation of getting someone to accept the reality of their sickness and also the uncertainty that might come with it?
It’s really hard, and it’s a really complicated dynamic. Most people don’t want to hear that they’re dying, so they don’t listen to their doctors, and most doctors don’t want to tell people that they’re dying.
Because people aren’t primed to hear it, and doctors aren’t primed to say it, what happens is there’s this little complicit dance between doctors and patients and family members. Everyone just kind of tries to scare one another off, so they don’t mention death and they instead lean on euphemisms. You’d be shocked at how many well-educated, thoughtful people come toward the end of their life and find themselves surprised that they’re dying.
A palliative care doctor starts the conversation by getting a sense of where the patient is. What’s their understanding of their illness? I typically invite a conversation with open-ended questions, like “Well, tell me about what’s important to you. Tell me about what you would let go of to live longer.” I get to know the person. When I feel safe with them and we’re speaking the same language, then I can broach the subject of time, and I can say, “Well, you know, because of X, Y, or Z diagnosis, whatever else it is, at some point this disease is not likely to be curable, and we’re going to have to turn our attention to the fact of death. Let’s prepare for it. Let’s plan for it.”
This is where death and life go together very helpfully: The way to prepare for death is to live the life you want. If you start talking to someone about how they want to die, you usually end up landing on how they want to live until they die. That’s a much less scary conversation. It’s a much more compelling conversation for people, too, and it’s more accurate.
What matters to most people at the very end?
There are consistent themes around this, which we know from both data and experience:
- Comfort is important. Very few people are interested in suffering. Some people are, but most people want to be free from pain.
- Most people want to be surrounded by friends and family. They want to be either at home or at a place they call home, a place of their choosing; some people are in the hospital for months, and that becomes their home. The people around them become their family.
- Most people are spiritual and have some relationship to a creator, so most people want to be at peace with their god, to be at peace spiritually.
- Most people also want to leave their family with as little burden as possible, so that means financial planning, etc. It’s very important to people that they not be a burden to their family unnecessarily.
Why do you think as a culture we find it so challenging to talk about death and dying?
You can kind of tell that America is a young place, in part by the way we handle aging and death. We’re terrified of it. Most cultures have been dealing with this a long, long time and have made peace with death as a part of life. Instead of falling back on institutional cultural ritualized knowledge, we’ve outsourced dying to medicine. We leave one another feeling like we’re incompetent at dying, when in fact, we have it in us. We’re just too far removed from it.
In the last 170 years or so, as a society—especially in the health care industry—we’ve been in a long romance with innovation and technology. We believe if you hang in long enough and you work hard enough, everything is solvable. That we can invent our way through anything. You hear people talk, and you realize somehow they’ve absorbed this idea that death is optional, when in fact, of course, it’s not. I notice in my practice when I’m dealing with someone who lives on a farm, someone who is close to nature and its cycles, that they know that death is a part of life. Inherently. They’re around it all day, every day, whether it’s slaughtering an animal or raking up leaves. They haven’t removed themselves from nature’s cycles, so death makes total sense to them. Those of us who are living more technologically driven lives often lose that intuition, that gut feel, and so nature surprises us. Nature scares us.
Part of the problem, too, is what one of my colleagues calls the “medical-industrial complex”: Health care is an enormous business in this country. As long as we decide to consider health care a business and not a civil right, it’s subject to all the fickleness of capitalism and it requires marketing. When I see hospitals advertised to the public as the place where miracles happen, a place where anything’s possible, you know, that’s an advertisement. That’s marketing. That’s not real. We’re not incentivized to be honest with one another in this way.
How can you stay in the world and retain a sense of purpose toward the end of life? How much does that matter?
This question of purpose is related to the question of being a burden, and both come up a lot. First, let’s all get better at being vulnerable because we are vulnerable. If you’re in the course of a normal life, any one of us is going to be a burden to someone sometime. It’s just not possible to only give care and not need to receive it. Getting more savvy with needing one another is one way to turn down the pain.
We can also learn to repurpose ourselves. I meet people often who have had a single kind of career or place within their family their whole lives. They’ve had this monolithic role, and as soon as they can no longer perform that role, they lose their sense of purpose. They have nowhere else to go, they have no other interests, they don’t believe they can repurpose themselves, and they lose touch with reality really quick. This is one of the ways we die before we actually die.
But you can find that purpose again, in a different way. I’m working with a family right now, and the mother, she’s about seventy years old, and she’s been a teacher much of her life. She’s been the one in the family who’s always giving care. Now it’s her turn to receive care, and she’s really struggling, and she’s not good at it. She’s gone seventy years without needing much from others, and it shows. In her mind, she’s lost her role as the caregiver. So what we’ve been doing of late is saying, “How can we repurpose your life as a teacher? What can you teach your grandchildren now?” We’re learning she can teach her grandchildren a lot about death. She can teach her grandchildren a lot about being vulnerable and the courage it takes to be vulnerable. She can teach her kids how to communicate with someone who’s suffering. These are enormous lessons, and all of a sudden, she doesn’t feel like she’s being stripped of everything important to her. She’s seeing that she still has some creative life in her and she can take old skills and reapply them in this new way.
Purpose is a powerful force, but there’s value in life beyond purpose. In America, life is all about productivity. You know you’re relevant in this society as long as you can produce, and as your ability to produce reigns, so does your employment and worth. Aging then becomes this process of getting out of the way, and that’s pretty lame. It’s on all of us to see that there’s something bigger to life than our jobs or our single role or whatever it is—life is much more interesting than that. We are much more interesting than that. Another way to help one another repurpose is to actually let go of the need to be so dang productive. Get in touch with the mystery of life and the power of just being at all. That, I find, is a very, very useful thing for people who feel purpose is slipping through their fingers.
What advice do you have for family members or loved ones who are helping with end-of-life care?
There are so many layers to this: There are practical burdens, emotional burdens, financial burdens. All need addressing.
Hospice is an incredible service that can dramatically unburden the family. When your health is failing and you need more help with the activities of daily living, family members can step in to do that, or perhaps it’s time to hire a home health aide. But very often what ends up happening is people wait too long to invite hospice into their homes, because they wait way too long to face this reality, and then it’s too late to do much. So one piece of advice I stress to everyone is to think about home health care and hospice early. Even if you think death is years away but are still dealing with a serious illness, call hospice sooner rather than later. Just request an informational interview. Get a sense of what they can do and broach the subject as part of your planning. You don’t have to sign up anytime soon.
The other big emotional piece is to fold death into our view of reality so that we don’t feel guilty that Mom’s dying. It’s always amazing to me how many creative ways we find to feel horrible. I watch family members blame themselves for the death of a loved one all the time, even though there’s nothing that could be done to forestall it. We view death as a failure, and families end up absorbing that sense of failure. It’s heartbreaking. And if there’s one thing we can’t fail at, it’s death. You are going to die. There is no failing.
We all need to get a lot more savvy with grief. Grief is around us all the time. We’re always losing something. A relationship, hair, body parts. Loss is all over the place, and our American way is to kind of pull yourself up by the bootstraps. There’s something to that, but we’ve got to get better at just letting ourselves feel sad. We have to give one another more space for grieving. Grief is just the other side of the coin of love. If you didn’t love someone, it wouldn’t be so hard to lose them. Acknowledge that. Work with it. Let yourself feel it. That will help everybody involved.
We also need to push our human resources programs to help with caregiver education for family members or generous bereavement time off. That’s a big piece of this puzzle if we as a society are going to die better.
You’ve spoken before about your own brush with death and becoming a triple amputee. How does that experience inform your work?
Most of us have a kind of a haphazard view of reality that may not include illness or death. Illness and death can end up feeling like this foreign invader, despite the reality that they’re natural processes. My own trauma and illness gave me a wider view of the world that includes that reality, so that I wasn’t ashamed to be disabled. I was normal to be disabled. It helped me understand I was a human being for whom things go wrong. A human being for whom the body dies. That is the most normal thing in the world.
It helped me see myself in my patients and my patients in me. It’s easier for me to empathize with people who are sick and near the end because I’ve been there myself to some degree. But you don’t need to lose three limbs to relate; suffering and illness and death are hard subjects, but at the most basic level, they unite us. We all have some relationship them, and therefore we all have a lot in common.
I’m also aware that because I’m obviously disabled, I think patients, as a rule, give me some credit. I feel like I have an easier time getting to a trusting place with patients. If you take one look at my body, you know I’ve been in the bed, and I do think that is actually a great advantage for me in the work I do.
Have you ever felt as though you’ve failed a patient?
To be clear, most days I spend a fair amount of time talking myself out of hating myself, you know, just like most people. I’m deeply, deeply aware of all the things I can’t do or didn’t do today, or that patient I didn’t call in time before they died, or you name it. There is a long daily list of things I have to spend a moment reconciling. Usually it relates to some form of communication: I didn’t quite find a way to break through; I didn’t quite find a way to help them feel safe; I didn’t quite find a way for them to feel seen or understood my me.
How can spirituality help someone come to terms with death?
It depends how you define spirituality, but I might define it as a connecting force that we cannot see but have faith is there. That somehow, we’re tied into some creative force that is much larger than ourselves and that is all-encompassing and all-inclusive. If you have a spiritual framework, it’s easier for you to yield to death because you know even in your death you’re still part of something beautiful or enormous. That sense of belonging can do so much for us.
When I found myself near death, and thinking about these things and revisiting my spirituality, it became clear to me that I would be very sad to die. I don’t want to die yet. But what matters even more to me than my life or death is the fact that I exist at all, that life exists at all, and I get to feel part of that, and my death is part of that.
Can art play a role as well?
So much of life and death is so powerful and so huge. There’s just so much more to the world and life than what we can find in a word, so the arts can help us kind of get in touch with these larger threads, these larger forces, these things we can’t quite see or feel, a little bit like spirituality.
Expressing yourself artistically can be therapeutic, too. For people going through illness or the dying process, if they’re able to get in touch with their creative impulse and make something from their experiences, that’s an amazing way for them to participate in their life and in their illness. To turn their suffering into grist…something to paint with, essentially. It’s just very rich and fertile ground.
With architecture and design, the way we cultivate our built environment has such power in terms of how we experience life. Standing in a beautiful museum can make you feel things you wouldn’t otherwise and can help you pay attention to things that are really difficult. I would love to see the arts get more involved with the heath care infrastructure so that hospitals and nursing homes are places where you’d actually want to be, places that are beautiful or stimulating. The arts provoke the life in you, and that’s very powerful when the goal is to really live until you die.
How do you recommend preparing for death?
Explore a hospice and palliative care program as early as possible. Ask your doctor about it. Research local hospice agencies. There’s a website called getpalliativecare.org, where you enter your zip code and it’ll show you your options. Of course, some programs are better than others, but as a rule, these services are designed to help you suffer less, help you find meaning in your life, and help you live a full life.
Even when you’re feeling exhausted and you just want to hand yourself over to a doctor, you need to find a way to advocate for yourself. Otherwise you’re going to end up in the default mode in the health care system, and that’s going to mean ICU and machines and all sorts of things that you may not want. Your doctor is there to help you, and you need to work with them. But push your doctor: Ask them about palliative care, and if they say, “Oh, you don’t need palliative care,” ask why not. Or if you think you want to prepare with hospice, ask your doctor about hospice. What do they think about hospice? Is now a good time to start it? If they say you don’t need hospice, ask, “Why not? When would I?” Between the medical system and the training that goes into it, understand you need to advocate upstream. You’re pushing a rock up the hill.
Anywhere along the way, start saving money, period. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is health care costs, and the bulk of those people who go bankrupt because of heath care costs had health insurance. I don’t think people realize even if you have insurance, there are costs that are going to come up that you would never imagine, so if you have any capacity, just start saving. You’re going to need money toward the end of life. You’re going to need money to navigate illness.
Whether it’s in yourself or with someone you care about, reward vulnerability. Be vulnerable. Go toward it. Be with people and yourself when you’re suffering. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to get help and to give help. When it comes to your time, it’s important that you’ve learned how to receive care.
Then there’s the biggest one: Dying ain’t easy, but it’s going to happen, and there’s a lot of beauty in it. The fact that we die is exactly what makes life precious in the first place. You don’t have to love death, but try to have some relationship with it. Think about it. Contemplate it. As soon as you start doing that, the sooner you start making decisions you can live with, and you’ll avoid stockpiling a bunch of regrets. People who don’t think about death just end up assuming they’re going to live forever, until it’s too late to live that life they wanted to lead.
BJ Miller, MD is a hospice and palliative care specialist who sees patients in the Cancer Symptom Management Service of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. After studying art history as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he worked for several years for art and disability-rights nonprofit organizations before earning a medical degree at UCSF. He completed an internal medicine residency at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where he was chief resident, and a fellowship in hospice and palliative medicine at Harvard Medical School, working at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His forthcoming book with coauthor Shoshana Berger, a practical and emotional guide to dying called The Beginner’s Guide to the End, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2019.
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