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A Beautiful Death
By Rosie Eastman
Note: Rosie is an RN at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
Joining a recent Crestone End of Life Project meeting via Zoom,
she talked about how even in the midst of a pandemic, there can
be what she called a “beautiful death.” This essay is her
response to someone else in the meeting wondering what might
constitute a beautiful death.
Dying in the hospital can happen slowly—hours, days,
weeks—when people are stuck in the middle, neither getting
better nor worse but slowly drifting toward the inevitable.
Sometimes we can buy time with machines and blood and drugs
and work, but sometimes these interventions only serve to
hasten the end. Dying in the hospital can happen slowly, until
the tipping point comes where time speeds up at an exponential
rate until it’s a blur that leaves only mourners behind.
My patient had been dying, glacially, for years. Time and money
and effort (so much effort) created a happy life for him. He
knew love and laughter and play and rest. When I met him, the
clock had already started. He was quiet save for each rasping
breath that told us about the fluid in his lungs and the strain on
his heart. Outside of his darkened room, a plague raged with
nurses and doctors and therapists scurrying frantically, trying to
place fingers in a dam that had sprung so many leaks.
My patient was unconscious, unaware of the chaos. We knew he
was dying. Years prior, his life had been abruptly knocked off
track by an accident—a tiny blood vessel in his brain had
swollen to bursting and rendered him unable to care for himself.
His sister stood at his bedside, holding his hand while I held the
other. I wish I could have held her hand, too.
His last breaths came slowly, spaced far enough apart that it felt
like he knew he had an audience. His sister and I spoke quietly
about his life, what he had been like, what had brought him joy.
He saw our distraction as his cue to exit, took one more inhale,
and then stilled.
I always ask those present if they would like to help me wash
their loved one and prepare them for their next journey. My
patient’s sister paused only briefly to consider before nodding
and pulling on a pair of gloves. We talked as we bathed him, not
about anything in particular but enough to keep a pleasant
To care for the dead is a holy privilege, done as much for the
living as for the dead themselves. The way we honor them is by
caring for them, and the way we care for them is together.