How to Die Well, According to a Palliative Care Doctor

Preparing for death by making peace with it

Mark Starmach
Published in
12 min readJan 18, 2019


Illustrations: Mark Starmach

First, you withdraw.

Life shrinks down to the size of your home, then to your bedroom, then to your bed—sometimes over months, but more often over weeks.

Old joys stop having the same pull.

You eat less, drink less. Have less interest in speaking.

As your body’s systems start shutting down, you have less and less energy.

You sleep more and more throughout the day.

You start to slip in and out of consciousness and unconsciousness for longer periods of time.

Staying alive starts to feel like staying awake when you are very immensely tired.

At some point, you can’t hold on any longer.

And then you die.

A calm fall into a cosmic sleep.

But that’s not even the half of it.

“There are four ways people tend to die,” the older woman opposite me says as she reaches for a napkin and a ballpoint pen.

This woman is Dr. Yvonne McMaster, a retired palliative care physician turned campaigner for the cause. You see, soon after she retired, Yvonne discovered that government funding to her old workplace had been stripped. So she started a petition and, over the past five years, has collected over 85,000 signatures to reinstate funding to palliative care across the state (a task she achieved last year). Throughout, I’ve had the pleasure of shadowing Yvonne off and on, helping her with speeches, social media, etc. Today we’re at a cafe in her neighborhood to plan an upcoming newsletter.

She wears a bright yellow blazer, as she always does, and sips tea with a slice of lemon, as her mother always did.

Being privy to Yvonne’s campaign over the past five years and having seen the level of misunderstanding around palliative care and euthanasia and end of life care in general, I’ve picked up some bits and pieces that not many people know…