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Ira  Byock, MD was the Director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire and is currently Professor of Anesthesiology and Community & Family Medicine at Dartmouth[…]

Is there such a thing as a heroic death?

Question: Is there such a thing as a heroic death?


Ira Byock: I think some deaths are indeed heroic, the person who steps in front of a gun to save a another innocent person, there’s so many examples of heroic deaths. I think though that both the heroic death and the tragic death as intrinsically valuable as they maybe culturally in giving us role models or examples that emulate the highest of human value selflessness and values. That’s all there, but they also can suddenly be another way of avoiding the reality of dying some of even the mundane reality of dying.

That is part and parcel of this time of life for the large majority of human beings. I think healthcare can teach us a lot and certainly the discipline of palliative care and palliative medicine that I am part of, can certainly contribute a lot, not just from within healthcare but culturally in reintegrating this time of life within a notion of full and healthy living. I think though that really we have not paid enough attention to the anthropology of this time of life, not only across the world in different countries and cultures, but even within the United States in North America, and what we can teach one another within our own regional culture and our own faith communities and ethnic subcultures, and I think we have a lot to teach, one another.


Question: Is there such a thing as a pointless death?


Ira Byock: I am not sure that there are any deaths that aren’t pointless in the sense, I do this and as much as I value this time of life we call dying, I also on a very personal and fundamental level rage against the fact of death, it feels inherently meaningless. Frankly I don’t understand in some sort of fundamental cosmologic way why it needs to happen. I just know it does happen, and that’s what we have been given, it’s like why, what’s gravity after all? What is gravity, what does that mean?

And why does that happen and why does gravity happen? Well I don’t know but it’s there. And, from my experience frankly death happens. I think so often having practiced emergency medicine for 15 years, there are some deaths that are so tragic and utterly devoid of meaning, in my ability to understand anything that, all I can do is remember to breathe I can’t make sense out of it that, the two-year old who a grandfather backs over in pulling out of the driveway or the infant who dies of sepsis at three days of age or any number of utterly meaningless deaths from my perspective. I am thankfully as a physician I am just there to serve and to try to comfort and do what I can at these point at times.


Recorded on: March 21, 2008