Many people hope for a good death, even plan for it, but few people prepare for death as thoroughly and with as much joy as Shatzi Weisberger.
She had an Art of Dying certificate from the Open Center in New York, and she helped organize an Art of Dying discussion group that met monthly in Brooklyn, as well as another group that met in her own small apartment in Manhattan. .
In June 2018 Shatzi promoted a “FUN-eral” [funeral divertido] for herself, in which her friends decorated a life-size cardboard coffin, inscribing on it messages like “go ahead, Shatzi! (but not literally)”. She wore a colorful floral print blouse for the occasion.
On the occasion of the “FUN-eral”, she said: “I want to really experience my death. I don’t want to die in a car accident or be unconscious. I want to be at home in my bed and I want to share the experience with anyone who is interested. “
In October, aged 92, Shatzi was diagnosed with intractable pancreatic cancer. In November she called from the hospital to invite the New York Times to accompany her in the last phase of her life.
“My wish came true,” she said in that first phone call on Nov. 18. “I didn’t want to die suddenly. I wanted to experience the process of dying. And I’m experiencing it. I’ve had some amazing experiences, absolutely incredible.”
Shatzi was part of a movement described as “positive death”, which brings together Death Cafes [encontros periódicos regulares, geralmente acompanhados de chá, café e bolinhos, em que os participantes trocam ideias sobre a morte], academic programs, books, YouTube videos and lectures. The movement emerged in the last two decades and aims to undo the silence and fear surrounding death.
She has spent years studying death as an abstraction and urging others to approach death with joy and curiosity. Now she was faced with a cancer that is relentlessly concrete and a fractured health system and which since Covid has suffered the effects of a serious shortage of professionals.
Shatzi said the oncologist had given him a month to live, possibly two or three. In the end, she would have less than two weeks.
The American already had a plot where she would be buried, a chosen undertaker, a shroud and instructions on how she wanted her body to be handled after her death. A friend from the Art of Dying class promised to stay with her when she got close to the end.
“Shatzi chose certain people in advance to play certain roles,” said friend David Belmont. She had a list (constantly changing) of people to whom she would leave her possessions. She put labels on everything, showing who got what.
Shatzi had been a nurse for 47 years, including caring for AIDS patients, so she was not unaware of the end of life. She was as prepared as she could be.
At the hospital on Nov. 18, she spoke of life after her terminal diagnosis. Now that her death was no longer something hypothetical, in the distant future, was it living up to her expectations?
She said that she was in severe pain and that she was weakened from a sleepless night. But she was smiling, more at ease than I’d ever seen her before, more even than her “FUN-eral”. All the years of work were bearing fruit. “I’m living the best time of my life”.
Shatzi shared what he described as “a transcendental experience”.
A friend from the Jewish Voice for Peace organization, who had been very important in her life, had recently come to the hospital and massaged her feet and back.
Citing childhood traumas, she said that her entire life she had avoided physical intimacy. But when she was massaged by her friend, she let her guard down. “For the first time, I opened myself up to intimacy. And I think it was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had.”
Shatzi got in touch with her son, from whom she had been estranged for 50 years. As she herself had never received love and affection from her parents, she didn’t know how to give it to her children.
“He and his sister deserved so much more,” Shatzi said. She didn’t ask her son to forgive her. “I hope he can forget any resentment and understand, as I do now, that I did the best I could.” Her daughter rejected her attempt to get in touch.
But beyond those brief moments, being terminally ill hasn’t caused her to reevaluate her life. Instead, Shatzi spoke of what was to come, said Gina Colombatto, who stuck with her in the end.
“Instead of looking back, she was curious to know: what is death?” said Colombatto, who describes herself as an educator about death. “The conflict was: I still have things to do and I don’t know what death will be like. I don’t know if I really want to go there, but I’m also excited that I will.”
Shatzi was determined to face death without painkillers. She thought that palliative care often involved a drug-induced numbness, leaving the patient too numb to appreciate the experience of death. She wanted to experience the full experience.
That was the first illusion she had to give up. There were others.
After two weeks in the hospital, Shatzi wanted to go home and receive palliative care there. She thought it was a simple request. But Belmont heard from the hospital that, due to staff shortages, organizations providing palliative care had a two-week waiting list.
Friends of Shatzi launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for private care for her — something else Shatzi couldn’t have done for herself.
At home, her body was deteriorating faster than she had anticipated. She couldn’t move her legs to move from the bed to a chair. She could not spend long periods of time in bed or in a chair without experiencing extreme pain. I ate little more than chocolate pudding, yogurt, and applesauce.
“I’m disappointed at how quickly my body is deteriorating, but I keep reminding myself that I have no control over it. So whatever happens, I’m going to face it,” Shatzi said.
Shatzi had a morphine elixir in case the pain got too much, but she hadn’t taken it yet. She was in a good mood. “I’m not feeling scared,” she said.
I told Shatzi that I was going out of town after Thanksgiving and that I was counting on her holding out until I got back. The last word she said to me was “Like”.
The day after Thanksgiving, Shatzi suffered what she described as “a pain emergency” and asked her hospice doctor to increase her medication. For the first time, she sounded confused over the phone. Still, friends said she had a good time. Amy Cunningham, her undertaker, visited her two days later and found her “beautiful, ruddy looking.” “I left thinking death would happen in January,” she said.
Three days later, Shatzi told Colombatto that he did not want visitors. She increased her dose of painkillers. She asked to turn off the lights. The energy that had driven her so far had given way to extreme pain.
“She was starting to turn inward and suffering a lot more with her body,” said Colombatto. “She said, ‘I’m done with this, I just want it to end.’ And I said, ‘It can’t end until it’s time to end.’ I said it in a light, amused tone, but I think it shocked her.”
She added: “There was a moment when pancreatic cancer started to win. Pancreatic cancer wins. It was the toughest death I’ve ever seen. Shatzi was fighting his way out of his body.”
At 12:40 am on December 1, their fight came to an end.
It wasn’t the death Shatzi wanted – without medication, taking her last breath peacefully, with her friends around her, sharing her last thoughts. In those final hours, the ultimate revelation was how painful his death was, how essential the drugs were.
The revelation Shatzi had in the weeks before was more significant, said Emily Eliot Miller, who often argued with Shatzi about her abstract fixation on a “good death.” “I think Shatzi knew that what she needed most was love and testimony,” she said.
In that sense, Shatzi succeeded. “She had the death she wished for: full of love.”
When his body left the apartment at 5 am on December 1, Colombatto chose the song that accompanied the moment: “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, played at high volume.
I have worked as a journalist for over 8 years. I have written for many different news outlets, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN. I have also published my own book on the history of the world. I am currently a freelance writer and editor, and I am always looking for new opportunities to write and edit interesting content.