A good friend has just had a fatal diagnosis. There it is, the moment we all dread, happening right now, today, to a dear friend.
I think, surely it can be treated. She will go through some hell, and then all will be OK and she’ll have some good years left. Not so. Few people make it long at all with this condition, and treatments can be worse than the disease. So what to do? Do the treatments, and go through all those trying times of hoping and wishing and pain and unknowing? Or, accept death as it so blatantly appears at our doorstep?
So the reality sets in, this woman is going to die, much sooner than any of us would like. Yes, she is an elder in every sense of the word, and even though we need more elders like her, death isn’t always fair.
What would it be like, these last few days, weeks, knowing that there is a finite time left in this body, this spirit, this life here, right now? Would we rush around (depending on health) and do bucket-list activities not finished before the diagnosis? Would we want to simply complete our worldly business so things are in order?
Would we take some review of our life? Try to make some sense of it? Forgive others? Forgive ourselves? Be open to the love that’s still with us? Try to come to a sense of final peace?
It’s so difficult. We won’t really know these answers until we are in that final phase; the knowing that we are about to die, being conscious with it, experiencing it to the fullest, hopefully. Perhaps death is the paramount moment in our lives, and we will want to be there for it. This will take courage, and possibly support. Death is part of life.
It is days later. She is dying and in the Hospice Care Unit. Her partner sits with her and attends to all her needs and wishes, yet is present with his own pain and loss of the woman he loves. What a precious place to be, a sort of divine edge to walk. “She is dying gracefully,” he says, as he is right there at her side. “It’s a practice of letting go day by day, hour by hour.” “She is able to talk about death and let it unfold …”
In my reading, I find a practice for death. It is a raising of the energy and spirit from the abdomen up through the heart and throat, up to the top of head, where it meets the light visualized above. It’s a clearing of the space through which there is a transition of consciousness that is capable of liberating the life force from the body.
In Stephen Levine’s book, “A Year to Live,” he talks about concentrating on the outgoing aspects of the body:
“Bring your attention to the top of your head ... become familiar with the subtle sensations of the scalp ... follow these sensations into the space above the head ... investigate the openness to the unknown. Make room for truth to present itself, as it will, and don’t hold onto that either.”
The feeling is sort of like floating up, an arising to something more spiritual, more otherworldly. I’m hoping my friend is experiencing something like this.
It is several more days later. We are at the green burial and full of sadness and grief. People speak about what a wonderful woman she was, how generous, how giving, how she really made a difference in so many places. There is music and poetry, and crows circling, and two huge bucks pass by. What a tribute, what a ceremony, full of love and nature and goodness and peace, as it should be.
So now we are left with our sorrow and the empty space this woman so generously filled. I feel her presence in many places, with the birds that visit my bird bath, with the lists I make as she too was a list-maker, when I see her name in my list of phone contacts, with the candle I light every afternoon to invite her in.
There can be much beauty in death.
Martha McClellan has lived in Durango since 1993 and has been an educator, consultant and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.