Over the past five years of my involvement with dying, death, and grief I have been blessed to also grow and evolve personally. I have had numerous experiences since taking the plunge into the taboo and forbidden world of death that have enriched my life and informed my ability to support others through this important time of end of life. One such experience occurred this spring and has morphed into a training program.
I happened to be at a sacred ceremony with two shamanic friends of mine and several dear friends who have continually supported me in my work as a death educator. During the unfolding of the weekend retreat many of my earlier learnings were somehow focused and all lit up much like sunbeams through a magnifying glass as I used to do as a child burning holes in newspaper by focusing the sun light into a tiny dot of brilliance.
As the experience continued to unravel and as I continued to open into the deeper awareness of what I was experiencing the seeking for the Truth coin that I had picked up May 5th, 1988 finally dropped! I got it so to speak! Here is some of what I received.
We are a dynamic, an interdependent cluster of four main facets as is often spoken about by others. We have a mind, and we have emotions. We are in a body, and not of it – we are spirit. Each of these facets is dynamically linked to and continually affects the other three. This is true in life and therefore true in dying and at death as well. We tend though, to die incomplete – in other words we drop a facet or two out of the dying and grieving processes depending on our own levels of awareness.
When we leave a facet or two out the other two or three segments of us are negatively affected by the omission. If we ignore the spirit of us the mind, emotions and body miss out and there is a kind of spiritual hangover. If we ignore the body by outsourcing dying and after death care, we have this kind of emotional constipation. So it goes. We tend to have, by omission, these incomplete grief processes that leave us feeling unsatisfied, unfinished, and incomplete with the dear one who just died. This unfinished grief can and does linger on in unhealthy ways for years and sometimes decades.
However, if our minds communicate what we feel drawn to say; if our emotions are authentic and fully expressed; if our bodies are actively involved in the dying and the after death care; and if we recognize all the way through the spirit alive in all of us, we can experience a full and completely satisfying good-bye with no hangovers or leftovers. Sadness and missing most certainly – but free of toxic waste left behind by our lack of attention to the four primary facets of a human being.
Dying, Death, and After Death for the Whole Personaddresses the four facets of our being and provides a framework for the fulfillment of life’s relationships through a healthy, hands-on, and whole person farewell.
A fruitful garden has facets to it that need the gardener’s attention. The soil needs to be fertilized, the seeds planted, the garden watered and weeded, and the produce harvested. If any one of these four aspects of the garden is left out the results will be less than fulfilling and sometimes are real mess that takes awhile to clean up.
The same holds true with we humans. Each of our four primary facets needs attention both while living as well as while we die. We need to tend to the health of our mind and thoughts, we need to create space for our emotions, we need to fertilize and nurture our bodies, and we need to tend to our spirit. Failing to be human gardeners in these ways will result in lack of fulfillment in the garden of life and death.
If we fail to weed the garden it will become over grown and produce far less vegetables or fruit. If we fail to water it there will be little or no growth and so on. In the human garden if we fail to express our emotions in healthy ways, and we do not feed our bodies in ways that nurture us we will not grow and mature and be fruitful.
The success of the entire garden is contingent upon each facet or aspect being well and carefully tended to. Such is the case at death for both the one dying as well as for those surviving the death. We need to pay attention to the mind and its collection of thoughts and history. We need to be mindful of our emotions and their authentic, respectful expression. We need to include our bodies and the need for physical contact, connection, and activity. We also need to tend to our spirit and the deeper honoring for the very essence that is us.
As we die or witness our loved one dying it is important to make room for each of these interdependent aspects of ourselves in order that we can all let go fully and completely of the one that once was. This full-being process is freeing for the spirit that has passed, and equally freeing for those of us who remain.
Each aspect of us is inherently wise. Our wisdom is not limited to our mind or mental capacity. We do carry within us body wisdom, emotional intelligence, spiritual insight, and mental astuteness. These wisdom packets work best in a team environment where each member is honored and their input respected and used.
Commonly in our culture we dumb ourselves down by relying to heavily on one of our facets, oftentimes leaving other as valid geniuses out. The mind – our thoughts, seem to be dominant.
Throughout this article we will learn to honor each of the four primary facets, introduce them to each other thereby building a fuller and more intelligent approach to dying and to death. We will look at how each aspect of who we fully are can inform the whole person creating the foundation for a graceful and dignified human farewell. When each member of the whole human team is present and participating the parting can be both sweet and sorrowful. I know as I had the pleasure and honor to experience what William Shakespeare wrote while witnessing my dear brother Peter’s passing. The sorrow was so elegantly raw and deep while the sweetness was so fragrantly light and refreshing.
How to Listen to and Learn from the Whole of Us
The Body – Direction South – Element Earth
Although we are all walking around in one, when death comes knocking we have this bias to run from it even if it is our own body. We here in North America tend do the outsourcing tango to avoid as fully as we can the rawness of the body and what it can communicate to us. So we employ others to handle the care of our loved one as they are actively dying, hire professionals to move their dead body around for us, and pay someone to get our family member ready for burial or cremation. We often put our body on autopilot to avoid the uncomfortable physical feelings of witnessing the dying and death of a family member.
Though our body may be doing its best to inform us and provide us with its physical wisdom we generally tend to ignore it. We may have an urge to touch, to hold, or to cuddle; we may be drawn to do something; we may feel a tug to cook or do chores. We may have sleepless nights and feel a sense of restlessness during the days. We may find ourselves wandering around the home or the hospital as if we are looking for something to do. We may be really hungry or we may loose our appetite. These are some of the many ways our body ‘speaks’ to us and demands a more full involvement in the goings on.
We so quickly turn these urges into thoughts we ignore their source and fail to create space for the knowledge our bodies carry and the intuitive messages they send our way.
Here are some things you can do that will honor your body’s natural wisdom and support the graceful and fulfilling good-byes we all long for and know in our deepest hearts are possible.
For Self Care
Here are some suggested practices for you that will support great self-care of your body.
- Eat well and drink plenty of water. Avoid junk food, sugar and excessive alcohol or drugs.
- Breathe. Take time morning, noon, and night to center yourself by breathing deeply into your belly and upper chest. Full inhale, hold, and then a full and complete exhale. You can also practice deeper breathing when your emotions or reactivity arise. Instead of getting tight, relax into what is going on and breath more consciously.
- Get out into nature when you can, walk or maintain your already existing exercise program.
- Take naps.
- Give and receive hugs.
- Get a massage.
- When appropriate and timely touch the dying person, let your body be involved.
For the Care Of the One Dying
Often the one dying feels like an unseen host for the illness that is getting all the attention. Though medical staff may be working on their body, to them it feels more like the disease is getting all the ‘real’ attention.
Sometimes, often, family and friends fail to attend to the body of their loved one. We sure sit or stand around most often with our hands in our pockets or arms crossed because we don’t quite know what to do, where to stand, or where to sit. Somehow we get all physically messed up. We may have an urge to sit on their bedside; to hold hands; to massage and yet unless we are given permission by an example, by words, or by request we behave politely and generally avoid physical contact.
Although this may feel awkward for us, for the one dying it can feel extremely lonely. Even if your family is not overly touch oriented or may not hug much, this feeling of aloneness can be extremely painful both physically and emotionally for the one dying.
Often times the ‘patient’ receives medical touch, touch resulting from the medical tasks at hand not touch for them, thus the rise in the use of healing touch, reiki and / or massage training for hospice workers.
The discomfort we feel in our own body consciously or not will often act as a barrier to our offering caring touch.
Physical touch is powerful and intimate. At the time of active dying or terminal illness touch can be even more so. It is important to have permission to touch and for the type of touch you may want to use. Touch changes for the person dying the closer they get to death and as they near death touch may need to be withdrawn totally.
After death touch is perfectly fine, and in some ways it can be very healing for the family members and friends gathered around.
Here are some touch techniques you can try;
- Holding hands
- Foot massage
- With training, reiki, healing touch or massage
- Caressing the head
- Simply laying your hands on them
- Touching the checks or face
- Head massage
- Cuddling, holding and hugging
All these forms of touch can be tried with of course the permission of the one dying. If your touch is refused don’t take it personally and offer it again another time. Watch and listen for feedback – is your touch supportive and relaxing? Check in regularly to make sure touch is still okay.
Pay attention to the body you are touching and avoid tender areas, incisions, and inflamed areas, insertion points for needles as examples. When in doubt about touching or not simply ask.
The Mind – Direction West – Element Water
The mind is that part of us that handles facts, information, beliefs, attitudes, memories, opinions, judgments, thoughts, and all that thoughtful or not so thoughtful data – much like a computer. We use our bodies to express our data, and we may attach emotions to the communication, however the mind is primarily the realm of thoughts.
When you pay attention to your mind, I think you will be surprised at just how many thoughts we have and just how often we are thinking!
One of the primary functions of the mind is to store those messages we have for others that we have not yet fully communicated – like the outbox of your computer’s email program. We tend to store messages we have for others that we are afraid to say, or messages we are afraid they will not understand. Generally they are messages of love or regrets, fondness and appreciation or hurtful memories all those things we are shy about saying and afraid to confront.
Each person we are in relationship has a ‘file’ in our mind in a way. This file is usually full of memories, thoughts, regrets, and appreciations plus a bunch of memory noise. It is a good idea to get rid of the noise and get clear on the core messages you may have to say to the friend or family member who is be dying. Remember to include both the good news and the bad news as each category takes up space in your mind. We sometimes holdback the negative stuff trying to be politically correct and spiritual. Express both as fully as you can.
For Self Care
Here are some basic practices and techniques you can use to help you say mentally clear and present for both yourself and those you are supporting.
- Keep a journal with you at work and also at home in which you can write down those thoughts that come up as a result of dying and death.
- Make a list of the top ten people closest to you
- Below their names list anything you feel you would need to say to them before they die
- Pick one of your friends whom you trust and who can listen well. Set up a regular monthly meeting where you both can express any withheld communications you may be carrying
- Before you go to bed do a quick and thorough review of any thoughts that may be rattling around in your head. Write those ones that are on repeat down in your journal, you will sleep better
- Whenever possible find ways to make the unspoken spoken with those people on your top 10 list
For the Care Of the One Dying
Often for the one dying the proximity of death can act as a plunger that pushes all the withheld communications into the forefront of their mind. All those things they need to say in order to feel complete before they die. This can be quiet overwhelming for them as they feel the pressure of time and perhaps the lack of opportunity to meet face to face. You may notice this as they may seem distracted or preoccupied.
You can help them by offering them a kind ear to hear them out and some guidance in clearing up some of these held back messages. Sometimes people at this stage of life are stuck and cannot speak it out to their family member or friend and a neutral third party is their only alternative and often the best choice for a listener. If you are that person here are some things you can do.
- Say out loud what you are noticing. “It looks like you are preoccupied in thought, are there some things you may need to say?” Wait for their response, it will guide your next steps. Most folks will respond positively as they really do want to say what they need to say before they die. When you get a positive reply follow the next steps.
- “Yeah it looked like you were mulling things over in your mind. Is there a person or two you need to say things to?” Again wait for their response and you could make a list for them in the back of your journal if there are a few. Act as their scribe.
- “What sort of things do you have to say to these people?” could be a natural next step. “Are these things you would like them to hear?” might be your next question.
There are really no wrong questions to ask in this regard simply follow your intuition knowing that most people want to get these communications spoken before they pass. You are walking them through the process you complete for your own mental health care.
For them, as was the case in your own mental clearing, they may need an objective listener as they may have some negative messages to communicate. Often a neutral party is a great outlet for them. At this time there may also be deathbed regrets that they need to express. Here is a little story that will illustrate what I am speaking of.
I was on duty at my local hospice and the evening shift of nurses, two, were over run with patients requests and a huge volume of medical care tasks to handle. One older woman was having a hard time and seemed very anxious and restless. The staff asked if I could go and be with her.
When I entered her room she was breathing rapidly and she seemed both preoccupied and anxious. I sat beside her on the bed and we simply held hands for a while. Once we were ‘connected’ I slide my arm behind her back and gently pulled her towards me placing her back on my chest, I held her this way for a minute or two until my slower deeper breath settled her breath down. When see was breathing more slowly I laid her back on her bed and we went back to holding hands.
A few minutes later she said to me, “Stephen can I tell you something?” to which I replied, “Absolutely.”
She went on to say, “You know how much I love my husband don’t you.”
“Yes,” I said, “it is really obvious to me.”
She went on to say, “Well you know I always held about 5% of my love for him back just in case and I don’t think I should have done that.”
Wow, what a beautiful deathbed confession. My response was the only appropriate thing to say, “Thank you.”
She feel deeply asleep shortly after she shared this and died four hours later.
It can be and often is this simple. The more clear and present you are the better listener you are for those you serve.
The Emotions – Direction East – Element Fire
Not unlike the mind and the work you did to get mentally clear so you could receive the thoughts of others in the section you will work on the expression of withheld emotions in order that you can be a great emotional receiver of others.
Take some time for yourself and find a quiet and private place to sit. All you need to do is notice your emotional ‘body’ and become aware of the emotions you are carrying. Sadness and anger are two of the emotions we often push down and aside as they are considered dark or negative emotions so pay particular attention to these two. What other emotions are you carrying.
Emotions get a bad rap! They are considered too much to receive, a burden, something to fix, too much to handle, a problem… the list goes on. However it is our very emotions that link us together, a shared human experience. Given our culture’s approach to emotions we may have some pent up emotions to release. This is why grief can sometimes be very complex.
The natural emotional response to death can get tangled up with the basket of unexpressed emotions we are already carrying and we can slip into emotional overwhelm quite easily and without even knowing what is really going on.
Emotional expression is our way to emotional health.
For Self Care
Here are some basic practices and techniques you can use to help you say emotionally empty and present for both yourself and those you are supporting.
- In a section of your journal you use for your mental notes create an emotional log and begin to record the emotions you notice though out your daily life
- Make a list of the top ten people closest to you that you find you are most emotionally triggered by
- Below their names list anything emotions that typically arise when you are triggered by them
- Pick one of your friends whom you trust and who can receive emotions well. Set up a regular monthly meeting where you both can express any withheld emotions you may be carrying
- Before you go to bed do a quick and thorough review of any emotions that may be rattling around in your emotional body. Write those ones that frequently come to the surface in your journal
- Whenever possible find ways to express the emotions that arise in the moment if appropriate and if possible. Otherwise make time after your work day to express and release them
For the Care Of the One Dying
Often, for the one with the terminal illness, they feel they are already enough of a burden to their family as it is without adding ‘burdening’ them with their emotions. Sometimes the one dying becomes by default the emotional rock of Gibraltar, stuffing their own feelings, so as not to further weigh down their loved ones.
Similarly the family members make similar choices so as not to add even more stress to the one living with the terminal illness.
So the entire entourage plays out the political correctness of emotional non-expression.
From time to time and when you have a moment alone with the one dying it would be good to try one or two of these entry approaches to how they are doing with their own emotions. Remember to approach them from a place of wondering or imagining giving them to choice to explore and express what they may have been holding on to or holding back.
- Trust yourself and take a shot. “I notice how well your family is holding together their emotions. I am wondering how you are feeling?”
- You could also try something like this. “I know I am not you, but when I imagine I am I get a sense of sadness. Could that be right?”
- Or you could try this. “I know with other families in a similar situation they all do their level best to hold it together and that sometimes leaves the one with the illness feeling like they have nowhere to go with their emotions. Could that be the case for you?”
The more emotionally healthy you are the better receiver you are for those you serve. You emotional wellbeing is a bigger gift than you can imagine to those dealing emotionally with terminal illness.
The Spirit – Direction North – Element Air
The final aspect of we human beings that often gets missed is our spirit – that one that is living within the body. Different religions call this force or energy by different names and we tend to get hung up on what we call this spiritual aspect of us. For me I like to keep it simple and I refer to this un-nameable force as Plus Something.
For those of you who have seen a dead animal, a dead pet or a dead human being you will have noticed that something seems to be missing. Yes the body is dead and there is something missing. Every family I have worked with have said things like this, “Its Grandpa’s body but its not him.” “It looks like Mom by she’s not there.” Over and over again I heard the same assertion from people.
What they are missing is the spirit of their loved one.
Notice that air is the element for Spirit and how appropriate! Without air none of us would survive and yet it cannot be seen by the naked eye. Nor can the spirit and yet like air we need it to survive even though we can see it.
This is the focus of this section, what is my spirit and what does spiritual health entail? It is an enormous subject that many have been exploring for centuries. So lets continue by adding our own search to the body of work already available.
For Self Care
What seems to help us spiritually and support our spiritual growth are very simple activities that we can undertake to do daily and weekly. The trick while we are doing these practices is to pay attention, to be quiet in a way and notice ‘who is home’. This is at the root of meditation, and yoga – paying attention to who is there as the body moves, who is there as the mind is busy, who is there as I eat my meal, who is there as I shower, who is there as I use the bank machine.
Another way to look at this is what activities bring you more alive, what gets you excited, what has you participating in your life more fully?
When you start to pay attention and begin looking for yourself chances are you will find you. If you can find you it becomes much easier to find the spirit in others. It is important work this self-discovery process and it is a must as far as I can determine for anyone in the healthcare, healing fields. It is almost always missed by mainstream care systems.
Here are some things you can do that will help you bump right into yourself – if you are paying attention.
- Go for a walk. Notice the feel of the breeze on your skin, the sound of the birds, the noise of the traffic, and the feel of your feet as they lift off the ground and as they reconnect with the surface of the earth. Notice your breath, your heartbeat and your thoughts. Who is aware of all this?
- Pat your pet and cuddle with it and notice how you feel inside, notice the connection between your hands and your pet’s body, notice the texture of their fur, and the smell of their breath, notice their weight on your lap. Who is noticing all this?
- Sit quietly and meditate or pray notice your thoughts, your breath and your heartbeat. Who is watching?
- Go out into your garden and do some planting or weeding and while you do notice the feel of the soil on your hands, notice the temperature difference in the soil the deeper you go, notice the garden smells and fragrance, notice the texture of the plants you touch, notice the colors. Who is the gardener?
- Take a shower or a bath and pay attention to the water touching your skin, the temperature, the smell of the soap and how your body seems to melt into the water, notice your breath, notice your body, notice the texture of the towel as you dry yourself off. Who are you?
Apply these awareness tools to all you do as best you can and you will start to notice the one who is always there no matter what it is you are doing… this is the work of the spiritual realm. It is not at all airy-fairy it comes out of paying attention to the everyday ordinary mundane things of life. Once you notice it in you, start to notice it in others.
For the Care Of the One Dying
Given the challenges of speaking about religion and spirituality it is best from my perspective to let the one(s) you are serving make the foray into this topic. However that being said one of the most powerful things you can do for the one dying is to notice, recognize and speak to their spirit.
From the practices you have done personally and because you are noticing the spirit of you in action you now have what it takes to notice that spirit in action in others. It may seem trivial yet the impact of you connecting with their essence, even though the may not even recognize it in them self, is profound.
If you are spirit so must they be.
So here are a few things you can do that may open the door to deeper opportunities to connect spiritually.
- Before you enter the room where your person is stop outside the door, take several deep, grounding breaths, connect with your own deepest spirit and prepare to meet them at their depth.
- When you greet them make eye contact, connect heart to heart, call them by their name and notice their depth of spirit.
- Be with them as if they are your only patient, friend, or family member. Help them feel that they mean something and that they are important.
- Listen to them as best you can without judging them. Listen with curiosity to understand them and what they are sharing with you.
- Be on their side.