Christy Thomas’ 2015 book An Ordinary Death: Where Grief and Relief Hold Hands, is both a compelling personal account of a beloved parent’s death and a practical, cautionary and instructional resource.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas, who is a retired Methodist pastor, relates in modern epistolary form (blog posts, emails, letters and personal journal entries) how her vibrant 89-year-old mother suffered a stroke and then suffered a series of medical interventions she had never wanted, and had in fact given written instructions to prohibit.
Writing to her sons on the second day of the ordeal, Thomas says, “I tried to explain (her discomfort at her mother’s current treatment) to the personnel at the hospital last night. I knew she didn’t want treatment. They had her directives which (her sister) and I had been carrying with us for some time, yet I saw them look at me as though I were some unfeeling monster. They said Grandma could not have possibly anticipated this event. I think they are wrong.”
Following this, Eileen H. Thomas lived for just over a month, in hospitals and at her home, cared for by her family and hospice caregivers. Christy Thomas chronicles the incredible frustrations of dealing with the U.S. Medicare system, fighting to get approvals for appropriate home hospice support in a timely manner.
Eileen Thomas’ three adult children gave her the tenderest personal care they were able, and it was a great deal. As the author points out, each of them was fortunate to have the type of employment that allowed them certain flexibility to “drop everything” and be with their mother. They had to balance dealing with doctors, hospitals, and insurance bureaucracies and also with their employers, clients, parishioners. The family, in looking back, expressed shock at how unprepared they were for the issues they faced, and this is part of Thomas’ impetus in writing the book. As a pastor, she had accompanied many families through such situations, and yet when she was part of making the decisions, it was uncharted territory.
Thomas also expresses concern for the gathering storm in the United States as baby boomers begin to age and die, not having considered and written their own wishes. “Assuming that most of us will die in the usual process – the slow and often lengthy decline until things just start to snowball and finally cave in – each of us needs to decide just how much medical intervention we want when that inevitable decline accelerates.” There is also concern for families who are unable to take time off work as the Thomas clan did, and for individuals who will not have family advocates.
The numerous appendices provide a thorough and practical example of items needed in pre-planning for such events, and for conversations between family members. Thomas gives a number of examples of required documents, including her own as a sample.
There is also an excellent companion to the book, An Ordinary Death Companion: A Guide to End-of-Life Planning, available as a free PDF download. The guide is in a six-week format, with a prayer or quotation to open and close each session. It includes discussion questions such as: “Describe your ideal way to die. Assuming you don’t get your ideal death, what scares you the most about your own dying process?” “What steps can you take to help prepare your family members for your death?” This could be used independently of a book by a group of any size, and would make an excellent Lenten study.
An Ordinary Death is a great addition to the growing field of end-of-life writing that includes Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and The Conversation by Angelo E. Volandes. Both of those books are beautifully written and imprtant, but are by doctors. This one, written by a daughter, gives a real-life glimpse into how it may be for me, or for you, as we care for aging parents or spouses, or prepare for our own deaths. It is a call to action.
As Thomas writes, “Most of us are trying to learn to live with grace and power. It’s time to learn how to die with grace and power, too.”