Learning How to Die

There is indeed and end to all beginnings. Birth. Death. We are surrounded by constant reminders of this all the time. Seasonal changes represent the cycle of life so effectively. We watch the leaves change color and drop away. The plants fall asleep or die, having an expiration date on their life cycle. Winter brings cold, snow, and ice that sometimes excite us with the beauty of it all and at other times, causes us to cry out in despair over yet another snow day stuck at home with the kids! Spring gives way to new growth, heavy winds and rain soaked ground that smells fresh, feral and clean. Summer lingers with the intensity of heat, the wetness of humidity, or the parched dryness caused by lack of rain.

Like it or hate it, we cannot deny change is inevitable and yes, death is a huge change, especially to those who have died. I don’t mean this to sound cruel, or lacking in heart but as much as we grieve or miss our loved ones, the biggest change that has occurred has happened to them, not us. And for many who are in the process of dying it is a time filled with fear, disbelief and uncertainty.

When my father and mother died within 6 months of one another a few years ago, the pain was almost unbearable. But, for me, helping them both to make that transition in a better frame of mind  or a place of calm, was so important. I made it my mission to allow for “a good death.” Each parent’s journey toward death was completely different. Dad passed away in 24 hours after his emergency surgery from a burst aneurysm in his abdomen and was removed from life support. Mom lingered for 5 years with COPD, congestive heart failure and stage IV kidney disease. In the end, her failing body, not her mind, gave out.

Neither of them wanted to die. Dad knew the chances of his survival after the emergency surgery were grim, but he decided, while in excruciating pain, to take the chance. In his pain filled mind there was no other option for him. Mom, who declined slowly over the years, still fought death at the end, even saying to me after informing her of the fact she was dying, that she “did not feel like” she was dying. She felt fine. Makes me smile and think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the scene with the chant of “bring out your dead” routine, when the old man being carried out onto the death cart, jumps up and says ” I am not dead yet, I feel better!” However, in my mother’s case, her unawareness of death was probably due more to the morphine and her tenacity to live than anything else!

Each parents passing was a celebration of their living. We played music, laughed, sang, touched their faces, backs, heads, hands and feet, massaged limbs, kissed, held, comforted, loved and provided all manner of attention. We spoke words filled with compassion telling them how much they meant to each of us and that it was OK for them to move on. Death was awaiting them and it was a journey they were going to do, on their own, without any of us in attendance.

The preparation for death was much quicker for my father, but no less intensely loving. I recall being by his bedside when the hospital priest came to give Dad his last rites. This was made all the more moving, as I was all alone with him at the time. Long separated from the Catholic church, I  felt awkward wth the words, but knew it would be meaningful to him. I was also struck by the irony of the situation. Dad was there at my inception, and I was there at his expiration. It was poignant.

I can honestly say, I learned so much about dying from their passing. And while I don’t know when, where or how I am to die, I am completely right in my conviction that I am going to die. So. In this journey of mine through life, knowing of this inevitable end makes it seem a bit less scary and uncertain. There is certainty. Death is inevitable.

I try to treat life with tender care and respect. Although,  over the years of my living, I have not always been fair and loving to this body of mine. In fact, I have treated it poorly in my youth, at times, but I am no longer there, but here in life. And my focus and mission in life is to be here, now, for however long that might turn out to be.

Death is not an uncertainty. It is a given. And I trust in knowing, when that time comes for me to pass from this life into what ever awaits, I am ready for the adventure!


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