The Irish Wake – Lessons for a Good Death

Even if we weren’t nearly a full year into a global pandemic that has caused the untimely deaths of so many vulnerable older adults, each family must at some point navigate the loss of cherished loved ones.  But how people face death can be vastly different between cultures. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine explores the ritual of the Irish wake as a template for a good death. 

In Irish tradition, on the occasion of the death of a loved one, solemn respect is paid to the departed, grief and sadness expressed but then as family and friends gather, fond and often entertaining stories are shared.  An Irish wake is a celebration of life and (often with the help of a few libations), singing follows the storytelling and remembrances.  Comforting, familiar foods and sounds embrace those remaining, and all the complex emotions felt after the loss of a close friend or family member can be expressed.  

In a time when so many families are separated, and funerals are either kept very small and shared virtually or postponed, people may need to be creative to find ways to have a good death.  Sharing the experience, by whatever channels available, helps those grieving to feel supported, and connected.  While your family’s style might not include breaking out the whiskey and corned beef, creating a means to express love, and lend support can bring people closer together. 

Talking openly with family about end-of-life wishes need not be morbid.  When loved ones have a clear picture of the kind of send-off their departed family member would have wanted, it makes a difficult time a bit easier.   Most people would like to die, if possible, with loved ones nearby and a gathering that reflects their values, experiences and the things that brought them joy in life.  Having those discussions with family and close friends can help ensure that however final goodbyes are said, the experience will help those grieving feel connected to the departed and to one another.  

“Feel no guilt in laughter, he’d know how much you care.

Feel no sorrow in a smile that he is not here to share.”   Anonymous