What is this thing called Death? I mean we all know what it means but there are so many questions around it. What kind of death will it be, when will it be, what happens after we die?
When we are young we don’t think about death much. We are busy being invincible, living our Lives, raising children, searching for the perfect job, paying bills, and Life rushes past us. Then as we get older, our lives become touched by death more and more. Grandparents die, perhaps parents die and it seems then that we are pushed to the head of the line. THEN we start thinking about it more even though we don’t really want to, it is always there lurking around the corner or just over our shoulder, every now and then reminding us that we can’t escape it.
There is darkness, a fear that surrounds the idea of death in this Western world. Fear of the unknown of course. It’s something that many of us struggle with, some on a daily basis. We fear that we may have a long painful death and will suffer. We fear that it may be sudden and we won’t have a chance to say goodbye; So many unknowns around the actual event. Even though we know the natural cycle of Life and Death, it is still frightening for a lot of us. No matter how enlightened we think we may be, I think deep down we all still have a bit of fear around the idea of death.
Perhaps if we had been exposed to death in different ways while growing up, taught about death as a natural part of life, we would not have such a sense of taboo around death. Eastern cultures view death totally different than we do here in the Western world. In Bali they have a parade with colorful floats and music, dancing, and balloons to give the one who has died a great send-off. It is a celebration to help the spirit of the departed one let go of this earthly life and move on to the next.
In India death is seen as natural and treated as a long awaited guest. They believe that even their children need not be sheltered from death and all of the family is involved in ceremonies when a loved one dies.
In Eastern Peru the people that are known as the people of the Amazon believe that when the “eye spirit” leaves for good so does the soul. When the light begins to dim in the loved ones eyes, the whole village will chant and sing to help ease the soul out of the body and send it on its way.
Imagine growing up in a world where death is talked about openly, where death is seen as natural and as amazing as a baby being born, as a tree changing color and losing its leaves. A world where death is seen as part of your life’s journey; not an ending but continuing on to the next step.
The fear of death first kicked in for me I think once I had children. I would pray “oh please God, let me live long enough to see my children grow up.” Then after the years rolled by it became “oh please God, let me live long enough to have grandchildren.” Then it became “oh please God, let me live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up.” Throughout those years of prayers, I lost both of my parents and it hit hard BUT I was still busy raising my children and life had a way of pulling you along. Then once my children were grown and out on their own, I lost my first sibling and that hit really hard. I had eight brothers and when one of them died, it felt as though our chain was broken, BUT once again life pulls you along.
Then it happened…..DEATH came knocking on my door and it knocked hard, and because of that knock, my views on death have drastically changed.
I was very happily married to the love of my life, so madly in love, so complete in each other, had hopes and dreams. From the moment we met we cherished every second that we were together and grew together in our life full of love and laughter.
My husband Henk was at the height of his career as an artist. One of his paintings had made the cover of House and Home and he was the top selling artist at two galleries.
We felt so blessed and life was wonderful, until about four and a half years ago when death got right in our faces. My love, who was never sick, who never took pills, who only went to the doctor once a year for his physical, was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer at the age of 57. We were devastated. It was if someone set off a bomb and we were shell shocked. The grieving began on the day of diagnosis and death became our constant companion.
Day in and day out – A companion we would rather not know.
In this wonderful world of “modern medicine” that we live in, we of course had all kinds of regimes thrown at us. We grabbed on to whatever life saver they were throwing at us, trying to outrun the cancer, because the doctors led us to believe there was hope, when they knew very well that there wasn’t any. It was as though even the medical professionals hid behind all of their protocols, all of their poisons, as though even they dare not utter the word DEATH.
Some say that the treatments give the person more time here on this earthly plane, so called “buying” time so therefore it’s the right thing to do. Yes perhaps it did give my husband Henk more time here but at what cost?
The doctors preach about how the quality of Life is the most important aspect of the treatment but I think that sentiment gets lost somewhere along the way. So many things are done to prevent a natural part of life, unnatural things because the goal is to keep the patient from dying. Why must we try so hard to stop something that is completely natural?
It is because of Henk’s death that I come to be writing this essay. I had the privilege of caring for Henk at home after the final visit to the oncologist’s office where he finally admitted there was nothing more they could do for Henk. He didn’t even look at us when he raised his hand and dismissed us from his office. Like Henk was garbage to be kicked to the curb, but only after they castrated him, destroyed his body with chemo and pills, the whole time knowing that it wasn’t helping but failed to tell us; they just threw him away. It was frightening at first to be cut loose like that but it was a blessing in disguise.
No more blood work, no more scans, no more ultrasounds, no more injections, no more daily handful of pills, and no more chemo. We were free and able to do things our way. No more running from it, no more fighting it, and that’s when acceptance comes in. Once you stop fighting it and face it, you allow grace to enter.
Every heartbeat is a gift.
Sometimes at night I would lie in bed and place my hand on Henk’s back to feel his breathing, and that was a gift.
Every second we had together was a gift because it was not tainted by the schedules and chemicals. It was our life and we were living it, savoring every last precious moment we had together. Even when he was sick Henk would quite often say “We have a good life don’t we? We are so blessed!” The reality, the love, and the pain, it all cracks you wide open and you are then able to see through the eyes of the soul, live from the soul and the heart.
Someone once said to me “In every death there is at least one gift. You just have to find it.” This is so true. At the time perhaps you can’t see it, but it will come to you eventually. One of the gifts Henk gave me through his death is in fact why I am training to be a Death Doula or End of Life Coach. While on Henk’s journey with him, I started doing a massage and Reiki for him every evening to help him settle for the night. This helped create a peaceful atmosphere for him and really helped him with anxiety and restlessness. I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life if possible; help others that are getting ready to cross over do it as peaceful as possible.
When you are caring for a dying loved one, your whole way of life changes; the way you view life changes. It’s not an easy thing to do for some and that is understandable. We as humans have difficulty to see through the veil that separates life and death but once we do, we begin to see through different eyes.
Some fear still remains but love and compassion overpower that fear just like it overpowers your own pain. When you are caring for someone going through the dying process you learn many things about yourself. You learn that you have much more strength than you ever thought possible and you learn that even though you think you can’t go on, you can and do.
For the dying you become their support, their safety, their link to the living. You also learn to see beyond the dying physical body and see the person for who they are, not what they are becoming. You learn that you can see beyond all the physical aspects of death and see the beautiful soul that is before you.
The dying are NOT their disease; they are the same person they always were.
I think of the dying process in some ways like the birthing process. When a woman is giving birth she has a coach or Doula so why not in dying as well. Being born is hard work but so is dying. Just as a pregnancy goes through all different stages, so can a death. During labor breathing techniques are used to help during the different stages of labor and the same can be done for the different stages of dying. Just as a newborn needs to be touched and held, the dying need to be touched and sometimes held, both to feel safe and secure and loved.
A newborn needs these things to thrive and the dying one needs these things to help them on their journey of death. Knowing the different stages of death and being able to recognize them and knowing what to do for them can be of great help not only for the person dying but for the family as well. Just as giving birth is a labor of love, I believe holding space with someone on their journey of dying is also a labor of love. Peace can surround both.
I am still guilty of having some fear surrounding death but in a different way now. Before Henk died we both feared death because we could not stand the idea of being apart. Now I take comfort in knowing that when I die I will be with him again. But then it happened and we were apart from each other. I actually became afraid of LIFE after Henk died. Afraid to love or enjoy life because it could be taken away from me at anytime.
I also suffered from survivor’s guilt which many go through after losing a loved one. I felt guilty that I couldn’t make Henk better, I felt guilty that he died and I got to live. Something else I learned was that you could “what if” yourself to insanity if allowed. I actually had a psychologist tell me that guilt is NOT a part of grieving. I know from experience it is.
Now my fear of death is leaving my family behind. I worry that they will hurt and be sad when I die and I want them to know that it’s ok. That’s why I am writing a letter for each of them for after I have left this plane to remind them just how much I love them and want them to live life in joy knowing that I will be ok.