My heart is heavy and hurting, yet guided and fed by love these past few weeks as I have been caring for another friend who is in the dying time of his life.
What I am about to share is something I wish I had known before now. It is deeply personal, so personal I feel a responsibility as I write to you. Perhaps you know already.
While I have not yet been physically present at the exact moment of a beloved human’s passing, there are truths that have been revealed to me in time spent with dying people.
I am pulling from the essential truth of the stars–the same stuff we humans are made of–and stars are born and stars die.
I doubt I’m the first to write about this because these words feel like an eternal truth, and eternal truths are written and shared everywhere, or discovered when we live through an experience. I never came across this truth until it came through my personal experience.
Death is like birth.
Right when we are born, before we are in existence, we die a death to enter into something unknown– called birth, into human form. Life unknown to us at the time, and yet a life that becomes knowable, revealing its incredible beauty, depth and meaning to us every single breath… every moment we are alive. Birth offers everything new and we are placed in the presence of knowables.
The human meaning I choose to designate is that in Death there is a newness, a possibility of … well …. I’ll call them I don’t knowables.
Death holds similar energy as when we are about to be born. We enter an unknown where new, beautiful and meaningful knowables begin to reveal, but we don’t even know there are knowables to be known.
Ok, I think I’m starting to sound like Abbott and Costello routine, but simply I’ll say it comforts me to think that in dying and death similar pathways exist: these “don’t knowables”.
I had the privilege of being part of a caring team for my beloved friend Vonnie Hicks before he died earlier this year. (I asked him if I could write about my experience with him and he gave me his blessing.)
I remember feeling panic stricken the first moments I was alone with him, because no one had trained me, or taught me… told me what to do. I wasn’t trained or certified as a hospice worker. What happens if he dies on “my watch” I thought.
That terrifying moment reminded me of a few moments during the weeks following my children’s births. I felt the trust and expectation that life had hurled at me, beautiful gifts and opportunities that, at the time, I felt unworthy to receive.
And somehow, caring for a dying human is EXACTLY like caring for a newly born human. My time spent caring for Vonnie continues to bless me in new incredible ways, and I am eternally grateful to him for the things he taught me most especially during his dying time.
Another secret I have discovered is that there is such a thing as a beautiful death.
Two words you don’t often–if ever– find together.
A beautiful death is possible. A possible bookend to your beautiful birth.
There are infinite possible pathways to a realize a beautiful death.
A beautiful death is defined, embraced and determined by you. Whether it is your own death, or the imminent death of someone you love. You can choose to co-create and hold for yourself in this life you are living, the possibility and wish for a beautiful death.
You deserve nothing less than a beautiful death.
If you are with someone during their dying time, you don’t need a certification. You don’t need fancy conversations or talking points. You don’t need money. You need only your presence: The sacred gift of your presence. Just show up and simply be there with the person… or if it’s YOU, be present with yourself.
It would be wonderful if in our schooling–or the How to Be Human Manual we all get when we are born (ha!)–we ALL received a certification in death and dying learning ways to support a dying human. Basically thanks to our culture that’s not yet possible in our world. Massive fear is attached to death and dying that is hard to deny. I mean we NEVER hear about beautiful deaths on the news, do we?! In our culture death is seen as failure. What would it look like if instead of stigmatizing death and dying, we revered it as a triumph?
For now I’ll keep repeating these words and plant these little BD loveseeds and let you know and to remind myself, that just as you are breathing and sitting here reading this, a beautiful death is possible for you. And also remind you that it is possible to be in the presence and contribute towards a beautiful dying and death of someone else, no matter how deeply you love them or how much you will miss them.
I’m not saying it is easy. Nor am I saying it is not painful. It hurts in a deeply human way. What I am suggesting is a way to be human that lets go of control to allow the inescapable to happen, while letting love flow like water filling the lonely space between you and your loved ones.
Your courage, determination and keen awareness of your intention will define what beautiful dying and death can look like.
By my definition, a beautiful death is even possible when death is not embraced by the dying person.
To me a beautiful death can happen when living people around the dying person openly accepts and honors–and evens SPEAKS out loud –that the person they love is about to die, and that this is the natural way life plays out … to end. It is so painful. And yet it is an opportunity for greater love to come.
(Is a dying person less alive than healthy-living-me? Am I MORE alive than a dying person? I have been blessed to be with four people during their dying times and found the answers to these questions to be “no”. We are both equally living–I am just much less aware of my own death experience than the dying person.)
To me beautiful dying is possible when I show up and answer only one question:
How can I be love in this moment? How can I reduce any kind of suffering around the dying person, either in him or her (shim) OR in the hurting people around us? (Ok, that was two questions… but the second one was born of the first!)
If I can painfully and lovingly look at my dying friend and see shim there, and also see myself lying there dying, it is beautiful dying because it honors the inevitable. The fact that both my friend AND I will die… shim maybe today… me who knows when (only the shadow knows!)?! But –to borrow from some brilliant writer who I can’t remember– neither of us are getting out of this life alive.
When a loved one dies, part of what is possible for us dies too. A part of me died when my dear friend Vonnie died earlier this year. He died and with him so did the possible me that would have been witnessed by him.
And in the same air and energy, as I continue to live on, a part of my dear friend Vonnie lives on in me. For real.
Vonnie lives on in my storytelling. In my photos. His facebook page. In me and my children’s memories and sharing. In our intentions. In conversations I still have with him (although rather one sided) and stories I make up as if he was still here… Because he is still here, just in a different way.
Now today, as I’m with another friend who is in the last days of his life this week, I wonder: Even though when I am with him, the actions I take are all done to honor him, perhaps what I do or how I feel around my dying friend is more to do with me than he?
I realized in caring for Vonnie–and as I have been part of the raising of my three children–that my time in this life is to be spent seeking out opportunities to reduce suffering and put my love on situations and people. I have so much to learn about how to live this way, but now every choice I make leads me to try to see where the suffering is (in myself, in my friends, in “strangers”) and investigate what I can do to reduce it.
With Vonnie sometimes it was simply to lift the cup of water to his mouth. To wash his hands in a basin of warm soapy sweet scented water. To hold his hand. To lift his leg. To move his pillow. To pull up his sock. To help him sit up. To help him lay back.
To care and love for his wife (which is never hard as I love her so!). To listen to other friends visiting and hear their words and not react with my own wordy and emotion-fueled response, but to respond with deep listening, and choose my words and actions from a place of love, not striving to fix anything. With space and presence. Hugs and holding. Frozen cocacolas. To drop my preconceived ideas about dying and be open to receive some eternal truths that death and dying have waiting for me and each one of us to one day explore. To receive our birthright knowables about death.
Being with a dying person is a sacred opportunity… a gift. I am profoundly grateful to have my heart broken and more deeply activated by the deaths and my dying loved ones. I am not summoning this as something I want, but I know it will come one day. I won’t ever choose their deaths, but when time comes I hope my heart and hands can hold the space for the beautiful death they deserve.
I am grateful for my thoughts and feelings giving words to tell you this story, with the hopes that I offer seeds to you for a more powerful expectation as the time comes for you to tend someone, and as you one day attend your own.
Beautiful dying. Beautiful death.
Lift the cup. Stroke the hair. Smell and share the flower.
To be present is enough.
Now my dear friends, where have you found beauty in death and dying? What similarities (if any) have you discovered between birth and death? Have you seen a beautiful death? I bow to you, whatever your experience, and thank you for sharing this painful and beautiful life together.
all my love from my newly aching-and ever-broken heart,