One of the things I continue to learn about life through death is that it is not about me. Despite what I may know, sometimes I need to be reminded that this is someone else’s experience and I am really just meant to bear witness.
I arrived at the home of a patient, an older gentleman who lived a full life filled with a lot of love. So much love in fact, that his family could not bear to let him go, despite the obvious signs he was ready. I walked into his room and simply by looking at him, I knew he was moments away from taking his last breath, but he was hooked up to tubes and machines that did his breathing for him and because of that, he was forced to stay alive. At least that was my perspective at first glance. My immediate reaction was to encourage the family to unplug the machines, to allow him the freedom and comfort to pass peacefully. I wanted to inflict all of my lessons and experience onto this family and tell them how it should be done.
But I could tell that they were not ready, and I it was not my place to tell them how they should let their husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather die. I took a step back, I made myself available to them in any way that they needed and when I saw a moment I could be helpful, I gently and kindly, guided them to be fully present for him and for one another. I waited for moments that I could be helpful, but stood back often, because I knew that was what they needed. This was not easy for me; in fact it took work to step back, to not speak up and to refrain from sharing what I knew. What I discovered was that the very best thing I could do for him and his family, was to just be there. I watched as they navigated the process of letting a loved one go. I watched as they slowly accepted he was dying and when they were ready, asked me what I thought. Because I took the time to make this about them, it allowed me the ability to see his death through their eyes and by the time they came to me, I was able to let them know it was a good time to turn the oxygen off, which they were ready to do. This was on their terms.
Once the machines were off, the beeping stopped and the forced air could no longer be heard, there was silence. It was that kind of silence that everyone hears… and they knew… but they needed me to tell them. His daughter asked me how much time he had left, a question we are asked often. I said “soon”. They asked me what they should do. I encouraged them to gather around his bed, and just be with him allowing him to feel their love. I suggested they give him back some of the gifts he gave to them by sharing memories. The room filled with laughter, and story telling, and tears. I watched as he took his last breath, but waited for them to finish, I waited for them to know. They each looked up at me and asked if he had died, I said, “yes” and their eyes filled with tears and their sobbing was deafening. I too cried, I couldn’t help myself; their love was a beautiful love and this loss was big for all of them. My tears were gentle and quiet, but they were my very real reaction to someone else experiencing deep loss.
I stepped away from the bed, and from the grieving family, and I walked outside to catch my breath, to work through my own emotional reaction to their experience.
When I walked back in, I offered my ceremonial bowl to provide a bath for him. I encouraged oils and flowers and guided them as they bathed him, and said goodbye. They dressed him in his finest suit, saving his glasses for last and I watched, as they made sure every single thing was perfect for him. He looked regal and handsome and they showed so much pride in honoring a man who provided them with such a beautiful life. Their gratitude and respect showed in their attention to detail.
When I followed them out to the car that was to drive him away, I felt their pain and ache as they had to say goodbye again, knowing how difficult the next few hours, days, months and years will be for all of them. I felt honored and blessed to be present for him and for them.
Death is very personal; to the person dying and to those who are left behind. This is their experience and no amount of knowledge you bring to the bedside should interfere with that. The gift we bring, is helping to create a safe place for them to process everything at a speed that is comfortable. What I learned that day was how to be truly mindful of how delicate and fragile death is, and how to offer my gifts without taking up too much of their space. This is about them, your gift to them, is to be very mindful of that.
Photo credit: My friend Nancy K.