“What do you consider a ‘good death’?”
A furrow creased my eyebrows. The interviewer and I had spent the last ninety minutes discussing the intricacies of end-of-life care, delving into hard topics such as life-support measures, hospice, and advance directives. I navigated those delicate subjects with confidence, but this question so troubled me that I lapsed into silence. “I hate that phrase,” I finally answered.
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Why?”
While she awaited my reply, a plethora of faces and voices cluttered my mind. I saw swollen eyes and tear-stained cheeks. I felt desperate grasps of my arm as loved ones crumpled to the floor in agony. I recalled the questions that hung in the air after the dying drew their last breath. I heard cries of shock and heartbreak echoing on and on, like breakers on a relentless sea.
“Because death is never good,” I said. The memories gripped me, and my voice caught. “Grief testifies to the backwardness of it. That we cry hints at an undoing of God’s created order. He designed us for something different.”
Is Death Ever Good?
The question of a “good death” may seem reasonable, even natural, given shifting views on death in Western countries. In 2021, ten thousand people in Canada died by physician-assisted suicide (PAS), wherein a doctor prescribes a lethal dose of medication for a person to self-administer, ending his own life. Canadian law now permits individuals with mental rather than terminal illness to pursue the practice. In other words, those who are otherwise healthy but suffer from psychological conditions, like depression, can seek medical help to end their own lives. In the United States, the legalization of PAS creeps across more and more states yearly.
Such trends hint at an increasingly prevalent viewpoint that death, rather than a terrible consequence of the fall, is a reasonable option to escape suffering. According to this thinking, death can be “good” if it provides relief from pain. What is more, the movement reflects a culture that upholds self-determination as an ultimate good; we live for ourselves, rather than for God.
Dear friend, when you encounter such ideas, remember that Scripture refers to death not as a phase to celebrate, but as the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death comes to us all, and God can and does work through even this for good to those who love him (Romans 8:28), but never lull yourself into the lie that death itself is anything but the terrible wages of our sin, from which we desperately need salvation (Romans 6:23). Remember that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Scripture is abundantly clear that we were never meant for death. And lest we forget, the experience of grief — to borrow from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain — shouts as with a megaphone to remind us.
For Now We Groan
God has confronted me with the harsh realities of death and grief more frequently than I ever would choose. As a trauma surgeon, I witnessed deaths both sudden and prolonged, peaceful and traumatic. Many of these losses imprinted on my memory, the tragedies and sorrows burned into my mind as with a branding iron.
I’ll never forget the mother who cried, “You were supposed to save my baby!” when I couldn’t rescue her young son from his injuries after a car accident. I remember another mother crawling into her daughter’s hospital bed to hold her as she drew her last breath, how her words eked out, strangled by her sobs. I flash back to the wife who clenched her fists and cried out to the sky, the father who fell to the floor and screamed, the families — so many — who held the hands of their loved ones and wept in subdued, hushed tones as the monitor tracing dwindled. Afterward, they would drift out of the room as though stumbling through a dream, their eyes bloodshot, their minds far away and disbelieving.
In all the moments I spent at the bedside of the dying, I witnessed none where pain did not overcome the survivors. Even in deaths that were anticipated, like those among elderly people who had suffered the ravages of long-standing terminal illness, the loss left scars. Families who voiced acceptance of a loved one’s impending death struggled afterward, blindsided by the abrupt absence of someone dear to them. It was as if a part of their heart had been removed suddenly.
What Death Leaves Behind
Weeks after a death, I’ve had loved ones come and express to me surprise that grief had so afflicted them, and at how deeply the hurt coursed. Reminders of a loved one’s quirks — her fondness for emojis, his habit of calling promptly at eight o’clock in the morning — would break into their days, and suddenly their wounds would open anew. They’d struggle even to breathe.
Death does this. Even in the most merciful of scenarios, like the losses for which we feel prepared, death leaves suffering in its wake. Even when it occurs peacefully and quietly, death guts the hearts of those who remain.
The reality of grief — the phenomenon of heartache after we’ve bid someone farewell this side of heaven — hints that we were made for a different world, a different fate. We were created for neither death nor sorrow, but for God, the one who made us in his everlasting image to steward his vibrant creation, to be fruitful, and to multiply (Genesis 1:22, 27). Apart from him, all creation groans (Romans 8:22). Apart from him, the soul balks at the brokenness into which our sin has plunged us and cries out for rescue.
Man of Sorrows
By grace, God provided the rescue for which our souls so desperately thirst (Psalm 42:1–2). And he accomplished our salvation astonishingly, magnificently, remarkably, through “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
Our Savior knows the burden of grief that so torments us. In Gethsemane, as he anticipated bearing the crushing wrath of God in our place, Jesus was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38), “and being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Even as we cry out and lament, and our hearts break, our hope springs from the work of a Savior who can sympathize with our every pang and tear (Hebrews 4:15). He laid down his life for us, willingly, to free us from the bonds of death that so pain us (John 10:18).
We weep and grieve because our world is fallen, “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4–5). The sufferings of this world, and our enslavement to sin and death, are precisely why Jesus came. Through the cross, he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Through his resurrection, the wages we once owed have been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). We have been “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).
Weep No More
The horrors of death and grief point to our experience as Eden’s exiles, displaced from a world without suffering. Through Christ, the world for which we yearn — a world without tragedy and affliction, a world where death mars no complexion and tears dampen no cheek — is not a lofty ideal or childish daydream, but a promise, an assurance, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4).
Apart from Christ, our “hurt is incurable,” and our “wound is grievous” (Jeremiah 30:12). Yet by Christ’s own wounds — wounds he suffered as he walked “through the valley of the shadow of death” in our place (Psalm 23:4) — we are healed (1 Peter 2:24). Although for now we groan, Christ is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). When we join him in the world for which we were made, in the new heaven and new earth, he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death, that gray shadow harrowing the heart, shall be no more. Grief and sorrow will fade away like withered grass.
And we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).