The Death of a Friend
I’ve spent a lot of my life studying death. My spiritual search started with my father’s depression following a heart attack at age 35 yrs. What makes this life worth living and what lies behind the veil of death? were my teenage questions . I wanted to give him hope.
But I have studied it professionally too. My attitude to it has changed as I have grown.
I remember when I first qualified I admitted a to hospital a young man recently engaged to be married with a bleeding problem. “You will be fine” I told him “It wont be so bad”. 3 months later when I finished the post he was still there, bleeding from every orifice, having undergone many painful ordeals of failed treatments, all hope abandoned.
Another ,young man in his 20s had an untreatable cancer encroaching upon his heart. We had looked at his scans the previous day and it seemed too soon for him to die. As he sat next to me telling me he felt he was about to die I put my arm around him and held his hand and reassured him , he wasn’t . He died there and then as we sat on his bed in his windowless hospital room.
I’m not writing to make you feel depressed. Its just that we often are in denial of death. Until we accept our own death we, somewhere within us , don’t believe it will happen to us. Not really. The sometime in the future-to be contemplated at another date , is never contemplated . Then death has its own timing, its own unprecedented plan.
The gulf between the living and the dying often seemed to me very great. An old man dying, in a dimly lit hospital room, whilst nurses talked about the latest TV show outside the door in the bright light . Who stayed and with the dying man, stayed with death ?
I cared for another patient for a few months. We became friends, he was always optimistic about each treatment. I met his family, I came to know his hopes and dreams and every day when I came to work he was there. Until one day he wasn’t …. I was asked to attend his post mortem as part of my job. We looked at sections of his heart and lungs and his brain was cut into slices for us to view, his skull already having been opened. When the post mortem was complete the organs were put into the abdomen and sewn up. I wanted to cry “his brain doesn’t belong there!”. I still remember him.
There are so many more. Who is experiencing this suffering ?
There are many easier stories too and before my father died I experienced an answer to my question of what lies beyond the veil of death. I had several experiences , whilst working on an elderly care ward, of people sharing their near death experiences with me, and a preparedness for their death. One evening whilst on call , I was asked to confirm the death of an elderly lady. I had seen her earlier in the day, very ill. As I walked into the room two nurses were arranging the body. There was such joy in the room, as if trumpets were being blown and my crown chakra opened and became confluent with the greatest celebration all over the ceiling. I can only think that the death of this beautiful woman was the most joyful release and meeting of loved ones.
By the time my father died I had found meditation. I had some premonition of his death and his mental suffering . I was able to visit him shortly before he died. When he died I knew that he had been suffering. I was able to let him go. I dreamt that he sailed the sea of death and where he sat there were deep red roses, although I cried because I had loved him
I would like to say something about the perception we have about the mental state of our parents and loved ones. Before my fathers death I dreamt that he went from bare room to bare room taking photographs and he wore a bandage around his head(he was a keen photographer) So I knew his life was barren to him and was able to let him go. It is hard for us to perceive our parents/loved ones as separate beings on their own journey and not the people we hold them to be. But their lives and their interior life belongs to them. I am reminded of the many times people are in an unconscious state before death. Anxious or weeping family members are by their bed side night and day. But it is the moment the family leave for a break that the patient is able to pass. On another occasion a man of 45 was admitted to hospital with a very large stroke. He was unconscious. The whole family gathered and were inconsolable at the tragic loss of husband, father, son, head of household. As a young doctor I didn’t know what to do. In the end I plucked up the courage to break the doctor mould and said a prayer for him. The family became quiet and comforted and the man immediately passed.
When your loved ones are dying please remember that the dying process is a lived experience and please give them space.
Recently I helped in the care of another young man. He was a big man who towered over me, strong and vigorous – as was his cancer. Strong chemotherapy held it at bay for 6 months and it returned with excruciating pain. He bore it with determination and focus. “ If this is what needs to be done then this is what I will do”. With the same focus he bore the needles injected into his spine . The same with next round of chemotherapy , and the latest immunological treatment. We thought he was cured, for a while. One morning he woke to find his eye wouldn’t move –so he wore an eye patch. The next morning part of his face drooped. The next morning he couldn’t close his mouth. I cannot imagine how I would feel . In a quiet moment I asked him. “How are you?’ What are you feeling?”
His reply has remained with me ever since “what choice do I have?”
He accepted each offer of treatment with the same focus and when there were no more options he accepted death in the same way.
I write his courageous story because it is all of our stories.
We live life like a roaring train, the relentless train of our thoughts projected into tomorrow. We cannot help it, for it is the nature of mind . And suddenly we are catapulted into the unknown. Before we know it this precious life is over.
Please live your dreams TODAY. Find who you are . Don’t leave the contemplation of death to another day.
I’d like to say something about our final illness and mode of death . For this family the fathers illness and death had a tremendous transformative effect on his wife and young family. His children came to all the hospital appointments and were there when all the decisions were made. The family grew as individuals and grew together. We frequently think about how we would like to die. Perhaps the easiest is to slip away quietly in ones sleep. We think we would like the easiest , least painful, most dignified. But there is such learning in death! There is such an opportunity for those around us. Perhaps it isn’t so awful to die in a long and protracted illness. Perhaps the unbearable in reality is bearable. It is our imagination of it which is unbearable. In truth we live our experience of death in the same way as we live all other experiences of life. Death is a lived experience.
Finally I mention my friend Richard. Richard taught me to meditate a long time ago. I met him when I was looking for lodgings. The most inspiring landlord you could imagine. When I heard he was dying I visited him at the hospice. He had always been red cheeked, plump and jolly. I didn’t recognize the emaciated man in the hospice bed, except for his eyes. His cancer had eroded into his oesophagus and he had to be fed through a tube in this stomach. He was welcoming , and loving, but so easily tired. I must admit I cried to see him this way, but I was able to tell him how much he had meant to me and how grateful I was to have known him and for all he had taught me “It wasn’t me” he said. I came back the next day but he was too breathless to speak. “Bad night” he gasped, explaining, concerned for my welfare. At peace with himself, despite the outer circumstances, he remained alert and connected within saying and doing that which was right.
Recently our family cat, Socky, died. He, the proud hunter who once caught a bird in flight, who brought us his nightly offerings. Ever responsive , laid back living. I came home from work to find him lying under the table, his back legs paralysed and lying piteously in his own secretions on the cold stone floor where he had lain all day. He raised his head and made a final sound desperately trying to bring his legs underneath him and then dropped his head painfully on the floor. I was deeply moved to see his suffering . If I put away my intellectual comparisons I understand that what I witnessed was the suffering of an innocent, like watching an innocent child .