How to Die Well


Two years ago, Beth Haile was told she had two tumors growing in her brain. She was 33 years old and mother to three children — her youngest son was a newborn. She was told that the kind of cancer she had was terminal. 

Before her diagnosis, Beth earned a Ph.D. in theology and taught a course to college students on death and dying, so she was better prepared than most of us to face this news. She composed an essay about what it was like to face her own death — what that terrible fact would mean for her and her family. The insights and experiences she shared were a rare view into honesty, suffering, and the source of an undefeatable hope. 

One helpful technique that I used to teach and now use personally is that I refuse to use euphemisms. I am not going to “pass” or “move on.” I am going to die. Death at this point in my life is awful enough. By refusing to name it, it becomes even more powerful and terrifying. I talk to my kids about my death. They don’t understand but they won’t remember me as a coward. My head is not in the sand. I am facing this with the same realism I faced life.

Her words are the kind of story that changes your view of the world — the whole essay reads like a dispatch from a place that we don’t know very well but where we are all headed, so there’s a gripping urgency and immediacy in encountering her experience. It’s like she’s pulling back a curtain for us to examine the foundations of a good life. 

I am also not turning my tumors into a metaphor. People tell me “you’ll beat this” and “keep fighting” and “I know you will win.” The battle metaphor might be better for some types of cancer, but not mine. Mine is terminal. There is no battle. And if there is it can only end one way — in a loss. But I will not lose if my cancer kills me. I will only lose if I stop living BEFORE my tumors start growing again, if I let sadness, and despair, and depression have the last word. And so I am not doing that. 

In this month of November, when we turn our attention to things that are passing away and dying, Beth’s experience helps us fix our vision on things that never change. She had a firm grasp of something deep and true about the human experience and the interior life — she was drawing upon a hidden source of strength. It makes one wonder: Could I live with her courage? Could I die with her hope?

There are lots of people — I know they are well-meaning — who say God didn’t will this. This is not his plan. I can’t accept this. This gets God off the hook for something I need Him to be a part of. It makes God absent, except in the most incidental way, from the most significant experience of my life. I want to argue with God, cry out to Him, and maybe eventually, accept what He is doing.

Beth died this past week. Please join us in praying for her soul and for her family — and for all of those who suffer from a serious illness. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. 

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