The Secret Keeper
Updated: 4 days ago
It is not my place to tell someone how to feel when they are dying. I never try to fix or change their mindset, and rarely am I asked to. I have come to realize over the years of doing this work, and bearing witness to about one thousand last breaths, that what they feel about their life and their death is not about me. And who they are, who they were, and what they might have done… is not for me to judge.
Some want to share about their families, their accomplishments, and what they hope to be remembered for. I hear a lot of very personal and private last thoughts, and while this may or may not surprise you, sometimes people do not say beautiful things or reminisce about a life well-lived. And it is those confessions that I find myself most drawn to; it feels as though I am being handed over deep truths that have never been said before, the oftentimes dark secrets that most people think they will take to their grave but at the end of their life… don’t want to.
Sometimes I feel like they need to share their thoughts and feelings before they die, as though it is a release of any negative or dark energy that they do not want to take with them. I always create a safe place for that, allowing them to feel comfortable sharing stuff that most people, including myself, might not want to admit.
What I am made most aware of, is how many people have lied, stolen, cheated, and caused physical harm, all of which those who love them would be very surprised to hear. But this to me makes them human. I have done those things in my lifetime, which of course I regret, but it doesn’t define me, which is what I always try to tell them as they share their secrets, hoping to free themselves from guilt or regret.
I was sitting with a woman who was moments from her last breath, and very conscious and awake. I could tell something was wrong, she seemed anxious and on edge, in fact it looked to me as though she were bursting to shout her feelings. I asked her if there was something she wanted to say. She said there was and asked me to promise never to tell a soul. (I asked if I could write about it one day, she said I could as long as I never revealed her name.) She shared that she loved her husband of sixty-two years very much, that they had a happy marriage, but she was secretly in love with his brother their entire marriage. After she said it out loud, I could tell she felt relief. I didn’t pass judgment, I simply asked her to tell me more about him, which she did. He loved her too; it was their deep dark secret. They never acted on it, and they never told anyone. She said I was the only one who would ever know. Both men had died before her.
She died a few minutes after sharing her truth… and did not take it with her, which I believe freed her from the guilt she felt.
I had another woman, a mother of five, tell me she had a daughter when she was a teenager, who reached out to her a few years before. She never told her family, but the two of them built a relationship over the last few years, and she asked me to deliver a letter to her. I felt like the keeper of a secret, one that I could never share with her family, but one I knew was handed over with trust, and I didn’t take that lightly. After she died, I hand delivered the letter to her daughter, who invited me in for coffee and shared with me their last few years together.
This reminds me that we are all human, we make mistakes, we feel things deeply which we sometimes cannot act on or talk about, and we can often be riddled with guilt. But does this make us bad? No. I can completely understand the need for them to release what they have held on to so tightly before they take their last breath. I am honored they trust me to do this with, but then I am left holding a secret, one I cannot share.
I do a ritual now when someone confides in me, when they hand over that which cannot go with them. I create the safe place for them, and I give them permission to tell me whatever they need to. And then, after last breaths have been taken and I go home, I light a candle for them. I sit with the candle for a few minutes and honor them, thanking them for trusting me to be there with them, and I hand over the secrets I was keeping for them and ask the candle, and the flame to take them from me. I too need to release them. They were not mine to hold on to. I am a temporary secret keeper… I then offer it to the flame asking it to take it to an even safer place, truly locking it away in a vault that can never be re-opened. And when I blow out the candle, I watch the smoke until it is gone, and I know that the secret is safe.
The secret keeper is told the things no one ever wants anyone else to know. But they can only tell it to the person who will not judge them, who reminds them their secrets do not define them, and who gives them permission to let it all go…