It must seem a strange urge – to work with the dying. Our culture taught us to resist this sacred Call.
“It’s not for me.”
“It’s too hard.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“They must think me morbid…. ”
Yet with a beloved family member or friend, in a hospital setting as a professional, or simply at the bedside of someone we love, it seeks us out.
And to our amazement
(or perhaps consternation)
joy and fulfillment.
Amidst tears a breaking open of the heart.
Bewildering to those who haven’t experienced it. Scary to those who obey our society’s injunction to hide it away, to pretend it doesn’t exist.
To not look grief and loss in the face.
Yet inevitably Death comes. In one way or another. As unique and individual as we each are in our living (which is in itself a perfect preparation for our dying*). A mysterious passage to which we can sometimes be honored witnesses.
A slipping away.
A monumental struggle to not breathe when our whole physical being was made for breathing.
From the first
to the last…..
Often the struggle is apparent. Breaths loud, rasping, rattling. Gasping. (Which may go on for days). Unsettling. But eventually the times between grow longer. And we witnesses hold our own breaths, stilled. Listening… Hoping it is and hoping it isn’t.
The last breath?
Then suddenly it is.
The spirit lifts up and out. If we have the wit and the wisdom.
And a certain kind of sight
We can help that spirit rise.
Certainly we can sing to it as it goes.
If we are lucky there is time and inclination for a cleansing of the body. Of the shell that is left.
Soft washcloths. Scented oils.
Beloved body naked and familiar.
Or seen fully for the first time.
Flowers swiped from the sickroom bouquets.
Beautiful scarves or a favorite vest and pair of suspenders.
A soft nightgown.
Each time an improvisation of what is possible, allowed, available.
Wise ones from another culture say, “But of course you want to be here. This is what we do.”
And if we are very lucky we get to sit vigil around the body. As if at a warm fire.
For the night, or the morning. Maybe even a couple of days
while those who want to can share in the beauty and magic
of this sacred time of passage.
Holding space for those who come to mourn.
(Perhaps to that newly released spirit as well).
Finding words to celebrate and honor.
Until we are truly ready to let them go.
And if we are very, very lucky
we get to take care of the empty shell ourselves.
To create a casket. With loving hands.
Perhaps woven as a basket
or crafted from cedar or pine.
Sew a shroud.
Dig the hole.
Build the pyre.
Usher out with bells. Sing the praise songs.
Set to lie in land we love. Or scattered in special places.
Oceans and flowing streams.
Prairies. Mountain tops.
We must learn these ways.
Letting the dying teach us
To heal ourselves and
Recognize that it is a kind of birth.
In memoriam to those whose passings I have been
privileged to attend.