A Good Death

Bruce Wilson was a leading cardiologist in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh for more than 25 years, and as such, death was not an unfamiliar visitor. But after decades of serving patients, he decided he didn’t like what he was seeing, and penned an essay for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that called for “Doing death better.”

In it, he wrote: “Generations of physicians like me have falsely been brought along thinking there's always something more we can do…. We have given this notion to our patients and to society as a whole, as well.”

He called for a cultural shift, for us “to view death as a natural end to a cycle.” “Life is to be embraced,” he wrote. “Yet death, whenever it comes to each of us, is as natural as the rising of the sun. We spend so much money and emotional turmoil staving off death, even for minutes or hours, beyond all hope, often beyond reason.

“[Death] is a chapter. Work with it, write your own script. Don’t fear it any more than you’d fear birth, or puberty, or retirement. Take part in it with the important people around you.”

Six years after writing the essay, he became a hospice doctor, continuing his advocacy for death with dignity and the importance of making plans. And then a few years later, he was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer. In an interview in the Post Crescent before Wilson died in January, 2018, he talked about how it was “odd” to find himself now in the position of hospice patient. But his biggest takeaway as he faced his own death was: gratitude.

The Post Crescent writes: “He’s grateful that he has had the time to love, to admire, to grieve, to celebrate, to forgive and to be forgiven by the people he cares about most…. ‘So you can mourn together, share the loss together, but also be grateful together for your presence in each other’s life.’ “

The gratitude spread to his family members. His clarity in end-of-life planning—knowing when he was finished trying to treat the cancer, and become a person who was now facing end of life—comforted his wife, Barb. “I don’t have to mourn that he was so miserable, he was so afraid, he didn’t get what he needed, he was so unhappy, he was suffering or was in pain.”

Wilson died just a few weeks after he and his wife shared those sentiments with the Post Crescent, from complications from the cancer. In a follow-up article, Barb reflected: “I’m not saying this was easy. The gift Bruce gave to his family was not being in anguish from not knowing what to do. It was as scripted as a death could be."

And that’s a lot to be thankful for.