I have been asked, “Isn’t it sad – being with people who are dying? The question has as many answers as there are people living. Dying isn’t a personality or character trait, it isn’t even a state of mind. Be it years, months or only a moment long dying is a process each of must live through.
Enjoy some great people in this 7 minute video from the Dying Matters organization. Warning: Contains British humor!
When I turned 50 a couple of years ago I had the feeling, at once overwhelming and uplifting that I had reached a threshold, that I was standing on the doorstep of the rest of my life. Not the venerable granite step of a brightly painted door with a polite brass knocker. It was more like a busy hotel lobby, a bustle of people coming and going in a commotion of intent and purpose while I lacked clear direction. I have always treasured these moments, of being poised on the brink of… something! Preparing to consciously choose a new direction can be thrilling or just plain terrifying, but it is always exhilarating.
I have encountered many thresholds in my life; leaving home and starting work, setting off alone for Africa, marriage, divorce and remarriage. Becoming a parent is the most life-changing threshold I have yet crossed, with its twin gifts of challenge and joy. Both of my children were born at home. Healthy pregnancies and a wonderful midwife supported my choice to forgo the technology and drugs of the hospital and instead to follow the inner wisdom of my miraculous body that knew just how to bring a new being into the world. At home, even in the most tumultuous surges of birthing, I had peace to feel the lovely holiness of the door opening between the worlds, to experience the irrefutable beauty of the transition. Every race and culture on earth celebrates birth with rituals and traditions that honor the beginning of a life. There is a corresponding threshold of course, that leading out of life – death. It’s the same door, just a different direction. Yet in our society we seem to have lost our recognition of it as an unavoidable part of life. Unhealthy and macabre attitudes towards death and dying are everywhere, while we are losing touch with our inner wisdom and the healing traditions of ritual.
Death comes to us all. My father died after long, chronic illness, and my younger brother was killed instantly a motorbike accident. More recently a beloved family member, Alex left this life in an incredible example of ‘passing’ with flying colors! Alex, who had survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager, was an exceptionally warm, generous and spiritual man. He had been working in hospice for 18 years when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer in 2009. Over the years that I knew him we had had many talks about death and about what might come next. Our conversations grew more spiritual as the cancer progressed and his final Christmas, spent with my family was the most meaningful I have ever experienced. Alex lived every minute of his dying and shared its lessons with all who were willing to accompany him on his journey.
Alex passed away peacefully at home surrounded with love. His grace in transition made it possible for those of us left behind to experience a gift of holiness, a kind of loveliness even in that most grief-filled of times. A few days after his death, some of Alex’s hospice co-workers came to visit his wife. Arriving at the Delaware house on a chilly, damp March day they were captivated by an ‘upside-down rainbow’ in the sky above the house. A circumzenithal arc, occasionally seen in northern latitudes when light is refracted through ice crystals high in the atmosphere. A rainbow smile from the heavens.
I keep a photograph of Alex’s rainbow smile on my kitchen wall as a reminder that, at least in the big picture of life, all is well. Shortly after Christmas 2012 another rainbow smile appeared in the sky, this time over my home in Rhode Island. It was a beautiful winter’s day that Alex would have loved and I felt so happy thinking of him being with us in spirit. A couple of days later a new friend was visiting and asked about the rainbow picture on my wall. After I had told her about the two rainbows I went to the computer to find something she needed. At once I saw a message that a young woman I knew had died in an accident. As our community came together in that time of loss, grief and memorial, I was strengthened by my travels with Alex. The personal threshold I faced was clearing, I began to see that my path was calling me to work in end of life care. I decided to become a hospice volunteer as a first step to becoming a Soul Midwife.