In this post we are now walking towards higher mystical understanding again. This post is a precursor. A culture that denies death inevitably becomes shallow and superficial. Much fear is attached to the notion of death, especially in the Western World. In order to eliminate fear, and in order to understand the meaning of our Eternal Nature we must also understand what death of the physical is. In knowing what ‘death’ is, we also know what Eternity is and means. Which part of us carries on? Which bit of the ‘I’ lasts forever? To understand and truly know what death really is, enables us to Live fully; without any fear holding us back. Blessings.
Three years ago I was privileged in being in the presence of a man who I had been caring for as he died. I was working as a live-in carer at the time and worked 6 weeks on, with 1 week off. I had made this commitment to long hours due to the fact that because of his condition he needed constancy of care, without the inevitable shift changes that usually accompany having carers in the home. For twelve years he had looked after his wife who had experienced a stroke, as well as running his farm. He had also been an active Church of Scotland elder. One day on waking, he had a massive stroke himself, which left him utterly immobile and having to have food liquidised, unable to speak and in hospital for around 3 months. I was employed to take care of him when he returned home and another carer was employed to help me lift, turn etc, as well as take care of his wife.
To start with; the only communication we had, was by my learning to understand what he was communicating with his eyes. He had hugely expressive eyes, blue, mischievous, bright…beautiful. Gradually we managed to regain some of his body mass that he had lost in hospital, and the speech therapists worked hard so that he was able to speak a few words. One evening after months of work with her, my fellow carer and I got him ready for bed. He had been saving up a surprise just for us. He lay there, looked from one to the other [on either side of his bed] and said, “Thankyou both so much for all you do for me”. We were stunned and he was delighted…there were many tears that evening at his achievement and the look of sheer delight in his eyes. That was the kind of man he was…the first sentence he could manage he chose to use as words of thanks for us. That was lovely. We got on really well, he had a huge sense of mischief. Little by little we had joint achievements. We were able to take him in a wheelchair out onto his farm to see a new-born calf. There was tears in his eyes. He finally managed by Christmas to eat things without them being pureed and made the most of Christmas cake and mince pies.
One cold dark February morning, I went in as always to say hello and give him a bit of time to wake up before we started getting him up and I went to the bed and looked at his eyes. The look in his eyes was unmistakable and something I had never seen before. I knew he had had enough. He told me with his eyes. I tried to shake it off, but said to him…”you’ve had enough haven’t you”? and he nodded. We got him up as normal, went through the motions of the day but by the evening he was beginning to show signs of deteriorating. A doctor was called and there was no apparent reason for it…but the decline continued over the next day or two and it was decided by doctors to insert a syringe driver to relieve his growing physical discomfort. I was warned that he would have about 3/4 days and would likely lose consciousness after about 36 hours maximum. He was in charge of the decision to have the syringe driver and we spent good quality time together, with me reassuring him at odd times of fear. I knew I had to fully experience every single thing about this time and hold nothing back; not try to “protect” myself whatsoever from the pain and emotions. Now his communication went again and we were back to communication with our eyes [and souls] and I was so so grateful for those first weeks where we had honed those skills together. Now when he needed me most I knew exactly what he wanted and when. We played soft music in the background and candles were lit around the room, making the room almost womb-like in its soft glow and gentle sounds.
His family gathered round him separately and together over the next day or so, moving in and out of his space fluidly and one of the most moving things I have ever encountered was the final visit from his grandson. One of the man’s daughters had married a Jewish man and they had four children, this grandson was the youngest. By this time he was verging into unconsciousness, but the grandson sat down, took his hand and started to talk, thanking his grandfather for all the various times he recounted during that couple of hours. Times of humour, times of counsel, times when the grandson had not been sure what to do. He thanked him for his example, for his kindness, his support, his humour, for what he had learnt from him…and he told him what he would try to do with these gifts when his grandfather was no longer with him. It was so moving and intense that I actually had to leave the room a couple of times and have a huge cry! I have never seen such Wisdom in such a young man. To witness this humour and warmth and shining Love at the deathbed was something I will never ever forget. From this time on he lapsed into unconsciousness and I felt almost like a holder of the energy; as various family members came in and found it hard to speak to him, and I gently encouraged them to just be, to speak, to just be with him. As time progressed, I sat in the room with his daughters and wife and I became aware that the ‘gap’ between this reality and the next was drawing closer together, closer and closer until I felt I could almost taste it, touch it, it was so close. There was hardly any space between the veils would be another way of describing it. The thought flashed through me that actually death is just one tiny step by the individual, between worlds. What I mean is that we are held in the embrace of Love by those gathered at our deathbed, and those waiting to greet us gather closer to, anticipating our ‘arrival’ there, offering the embrace of their loving arms to catch us as we take that step. One step is all it takes before we are swept up in that Great Love instantly. And it reminded me of birth where the attendants wait excitedly for the baby to arrive; we are all gathered waiting to witness and it is one small step, one small push before the ‘invisible’ becomes visible to us and is caught by the birth attendant. I was so aware that there is absolutely no difference between birth and death…they are indeed the same.
The following day the vigil continued; and we knew by physical signs that he was close to crossing. At one point I needed a break and went outside and stood looking across the fields to the barns. I heard him say at that point, “Stephanie, come back in, I am going now and I want you to be there”. I raced back in and his family were singing the 23rd psalm. They finished the last couple of lines, and suddenly in the quiet, his breath stopped on an inbreath…and he was gone.
That witnessing of the most sacred intimacy of dying and death was the greatest gift he could ever have given me, because I had never seen anyone die before, although I had worked for years in care; and had never realised its beauty, its sacredness and all the emotions and feelings. I had sat with the dying but no-one had ever died with me there before. It is really true that in the experiencing of death, one feels more alive than ever. Every sense is heightened over those days preceding, every nerve is taught, touch tingles with energy, hearing is elevated and razor-sharp, the senses are all alert to every sound, smell, intuition, knowing…it feels like you are going home too. And in a sense you are I guess. It also removed all fear from it for me, which enables me to live fully without the fear of death.
But we were able to do something else for him too. It is possible here in the UK for the body to be left at home, and go straight from the home to the funeral. Being a farmer he was completely attached to his farm and his land and this felt the right thing to do. So the caretakers came in and dressed him, leaving the lid open. He lay in his coffin holding the shepherd’s crook handle that he had also held whilst dying. He had farmed sheep and cattle. We continued to play the music softly until he left for the funeral, and the candles continued to burn. It was holding that whole energy from start to completion. After about 3 days his wife was ready to have the coffin lid put on, but during that time she and her daughters and family had been able to sit with him, talk to him, to gradually take their leave of him. And that I think is beautiful.