My friend Tim Butterfield said to me, I feel sure when I go around that last bend in the river, even though I will be unprepared for what I see, it will be beyond what I can imagine in its golden beauty. I am sure I will be totally OK with what happens. It will feel amazing. There will be more bliss and joy than we can understand now.
Often times I wish I had his faith in that whole transfer. Seems to me like it could be weird. Will I wonder what has happened to the weight of me, the constant hold of gravity. Will I be floating? Won’t that seem a bit trippy? I know that I am imagining it from an ignorant place. I have no idea because I can’t understand dying from here, in my aliveness, in my body, living as I do inside time, bonded to the earth, the knowing in my bones and the vision I have in these eyes. Yet, I know on the atomic level our bodies contain so much space. So, are we dense or are we light? Somehow, we are both. Can I move from one to the other, from form to the unmanifest, from here to everywhere, from the centre to limitlessness, with only my attention, consciousness and love to guide me? I’m going to have to. I don’t have a choice. Because, for sure, one day, I am going to die.
What Happens as we Die
The beautiful work of Kathryn Mannix, both in her books and in her talks, tells us that dying is an embodied process. It has recognisable stages, and a discernible progression. There is a perceivable pattern. No matter what you are dying from, your death process has a formation, a sequence experienced by all.
- you sleep more and are awake less
- you have sleeps where you can’t be roused and are actually unconscious
- You have cycles of breathing that move from faster to slower and around again
- You have an exhale that isn’t followed by an inhale
Her work helps us normalise and befriend death.
Many of the euphemisms we use to speak of death want to lessen the impact of dying, speaking instead of passing away, resting in eternal life. We say someone succumbed to illness, lost their life or luckily escaped death’s clutches as if death is the worst possible outcome. When we speak of those who have died, we say the late, the departed; when we speak of those who have loved someone who has died, we say they lost them. We do not often speak of the contact we make with our own death in bereavement. Many of the great masters on dying, those who have lived close to it, tending to the dying, participating in the mystery of it, speak about preparing for death. “Let’s meet our death with the awe that that moment deserves” says Kathryn Mannix. “Dying is a painful beauty”, Stephen Jenkinson says in his teachings about letting things end, “Certain things must be. …Nothing lasts. …Death feeds life”. Existential psychotherapist Irv Yalom says “To learn to live well is to learn to die well”.
The Miracle of Modern Medicine
These specialists on death and dying argue that because medicine has become so exceptionally skilled at preventing dying, we have renewed hope that people might not actually die, even when they seem deeply ill. We have taken dying away from an intimate process that we used to come very close to, and experienced much more frequently, and surrendered it into the hospital system. Those hands are expert and have saved many lives that in previous eras would not have been saved. It is miraculous, and we are all rightly beyond grateful. But as we hand over the process, something precious is also taken out of our hands. We don’t touch dying as we used to. “Death like birth isn’t an emergency”, Stephen Levine says, “it is an emergence”.
The Last Journey
I recall the generous words of a nurse in the cardio ward after my dad had a massive heart attack and we were told he would not survive it. What a beautiful family you are she said, all of you working together to support your father and your mother losing her husband. There is so much love and kindness in the room when I walk in. She was also the one who predicted, with extraordinary exactitude, he had about four days before passing. Her humble overview was so helpful to us, opened our hearts to the vigil we needed to begin, and gave us a guide rope to follow. It allowed us to settle into just accompanying him on his voyage. The tiniest sips of water, stroking his forehead, massaging his hands gently, delicate tracings from his heart and down his arms. We would speak softly to him in the first days when he was awake briefly. Then he slept without interruption.
Dad also let us know with groans and protests what he didn’t like. When they bathed him, turned him, lifted him, it caused him pain and distress. On his last day of living, he only wanted to lie in the foetal position on his left side. That felt beautiful to me, reminiscent of the images from the sleeping goddess of Malta and the early neolithic practices from central Anatolia. The art and rituals in the birthing and dying rooms in the stone ages of Old Europe, places where the dead were buried in the foetal position in egg shaped graves and tombs. I was agitated when he was moved from this pose of repose, as if the reverberations of unsettling him went all around the room, through and into us. I wanted to honour what HE wanted above all. It was HIS dying. By then he was unconscious, with only a few hours left in the precious vessel of his body, did we need to be worried about pressure points and bed wounds? I imagined his body was becoming lighter and lighter, moving into another state, expanding into the innermost reaches of spaciousness.
Levine talks about how dying heals the family. It can open the family into the lightness arriving and into the interconnectivity of the heart. It takes courage to leave without feeling guilty for abandoning those you love. It takes gentleness to accept the reality of death and to let go of all that is unfinished in the dramas of life. Witnessing the dying process is a surrender into the heart. He names the peaceful surrender of responding to and participating in your loved ones dying. The ending of a life is a gift to all life. Reviewing my father’s life and writing his eulogy brought me into contact with all of his energy for good over his lifetime. It is what remained and also what was taken. The paradoxical truth of it. The inter-relatedness of all energies.