In the end, that choice enriched the family's life, and taught the community the meaning of a "good death".
We may tend to think of death as the opposite of a good life, its enemy. But when confronted with a terminal illness that represents unmistakeable proof of our mortality, a few people are discovering that the same definitions apply to a good death: loving connections, use of our gifts with purpose and hope, the ability to live fully in the days that remain.
Over the last 19 months of his life, a Massachusetts pastor and high school teacher, Howie Rich, created a valuable model for his family and friends. Through inspiration and improvisation in the most stressful time of his life, he created a blueprint for A Good Death.
One day in the spring of 2009, Howie Rich woke up with a headache, which was surprising because, as his wife, Renie, notes, “He wasn’t a headache kind of guy.” By the next morning, he was in the hospital emergency room, headed toward an MRI, where a brain hemorrhage was discovered.
The suburban hospital immediately transferred Howie to Beth Israel in Boston, where MRIs revealed Stage IV Glioblastoma., requiring surgery and courses of radiation and chemotherapy. The prognosis: patients with this kind of brain cancer typically survive for 12-18 months.
Two weeks before that first headache, Howie, a voracious reader, had been perusing a book by Joan Chittister when he came across a passage that struck a chord:
“Hope and despair are not opposites. They are cut from the very same cloth, made from the very same material, shaped from the very same circumstances. Most of all, every life finds itself forced to choose one from the other, one day at a time, one circumstance after another. The only difference between the two is that despair shapes an attitude of mind; hope creates a quality of soul. Despair colors the way we look at things, makes us suspicious of the future, makes us negative about the present. Hope, on the other hand, takes life on its own terms, knows that whatever happens God lives in it and, and expects that, whatever its twists and turns, it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it well.
“When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us, we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair, torn and hurting. Despair cements us in the pre- sent; hope sends us dancing around dark corners trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see. Despair says that there is no place to go but here. Hope says that God is waiting for us someplace else, Begin again.” (Joan Chittister, The Psalms: Meditations for Every Day of the Year, page 44, Crossroad Publishing, New York, NY)
Inspired by that quote, Howie began to formulate a personal response to his diagnosis that was suffused with hope. He determined to be transparent about his illness with close friends and parishioners; he accepted and encouraged members of the community to support him and his family in the gritty details of chemo, MRIs, and experimental procedures; once he was able, he went back to preaching each Sunday at his church; and he shared the spiritual insights of his journey with hundreds of friends and acquaintances through weekly emails.
This powerful documentary film chronicles Howie Rich’s journey with brain cancer over the last 19 months of his life. Comprised of a series of interviews conducted with the principal players in the story, the film captures the shock, anguish, and devastation of the initial diagnosis, the long, sometimes difficult but creative and caring path of the medical care administered by Dr. Eric Wong of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, the crushed hopes, discouraging test results and “bumps in the road” experienced by any cancer patient who does not go into remission, and finally, the ultimate understanding of his cancer journey as being “a gift”, in Howie’s words, an opportunity to strengthen his connections to his family, his closest friends, and the community around him.
The interviews themselves are unrehearsed, candid, and incredibly powerful, ranging through the entire spectrum of emotions. They portray thoughtful individuals struggling intellectually to find meaning as personal philosophy and faith come into conflict with the unthinkable.
Audiences enjoy this hopeful and sometimes joyful film, even though the subject is a tragic one. It may be of special interest to those who are trying to find a way to confront disease or loss. Howie’s hope was not shallow one; it was hard-earned and refined in the struggle of his illness.
In the end, Howie’s deliberately hopeful outlook represents a blueprint for dealing with the last passage of life, and provides balance and perspective for those of us at any point in the journey.
Film Name: A Good Death
Audience Response to A Good Death
“Not knowing anything about this story, I was drawn solely because of its title: A Good Death. Bravo!”
“The way the story unfolds is fascinating, with Howie, his family and friends speaking directly to the camera with such powerful language and thinking.“
“This film brought me great hope.”
“I loved it. Very moving. I especially liked hearing Joan Chittister speak with such passion.”
“Powerful - with a message of hope for everyone.”
“The film is an insightful, sensitive, personal, powerful, and authentic work. “
“The information provided by Dr. Wong helped those of us who don’t fully understand what a glioblastoma is. He also showed the human side of a committed and caring medical community. A Good Death is a beautiful tribute to Howie Rich - who teaches us how to live and how to die with faith, strength and courage.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this. A Good Death is a blessing for every human being -- a needed story.”
“This film should be required viewing at medical schools, seminaries, and hospices, anywhere people need models for how to contemplate death with authenticity and courage.”
“An incredible gift.”
“So moving. We loved the way the film approached a tragic story with such humanity sprinkled with humor.”
“We left feeling truly inspired to live “in hope and not despair”, with the new understanding that it is a choice.”
“Thank you for bringing the story of A Good Death to life.”
“Each person interviewed comes across as honest and genuine, as if no camera was present as they were reliving their experiences..”
“For a story whose ending is implicit in the title, the journey transpires with a suspense that rivets the audience.”
“Somehow this movie is both deeply sad and incredibly hopeful! It was a wonderful biography of a man of hope - hope for him and his family, -- but truly for all of us. I would love for more people to see this film.”
“With its wonderful filming and interviewing, this is a very high quality documentary, with a universal appeal.”
“The title could have been A Beautiful Death.”
“A marvelous and powerful film.”