Heavy snow in the mountains…living on back roads makes travel challenging and dicey. Maybe I’ll skip the afternoon hospice meeting…the team will understand. The snow got heavier, the roads unplowed and deeper, yet something kept whispering to me…’go.’ So finally, against all logic, I went to the hospital, one of a handful cars on the road.
The meeting began with the few of us who drove in, and a call came from the nurse’s station, “We have a patient who is actively dying…she doesn’t have any family nearby and the we’d like to know if one of you can help out and come sit with her; we don’t want her to die alone.” I volunteered.
I went into her room and sat with an elderly woman as she went through slow seizures, quiet moments, the ever present death rattle, eyes focused in wonder on someone/something in her view. Nurses kept stopping in to check on her. One of the nurses was particularly kind, telling me about what was happening, how this would unfold, probably into the next day or so.
The patient’s name was Patricia (changed)…and I wondered who had called her Patricia or Patty, who she was as a mother, a young woman, a girl…who she loved and who loved her. I stroked her arm, I whispered to her…I spoke a simple made up prayer…I sang a lullaby that brought her focus to me for a moment. I sat silently not wanting to interfere with her leaving…and I breathed and watched…as the pulse in her neck finally went from strong to weak…and she was gone. I sat for a while with her…in awe and tears for a woman I didn’t even know…for a woman who blessed me with the sacred privilege of witnessing her as she crossed into the mystery…
Death touches each of us in its own way, doesn’t it?…until it finally arrives to come and call us to our own.
Death is asking something of us, wants to teach us something, something very important and I want to learn what that is…and I trust that dreamwork, perhaps taken to its deepest level, can help us with this.
It may be as the Tibetans teach…that our living is preparation for our dying.
Stephen Jenkinson, an edgy teacher on dying, challenges how we are in relationship with death, especially in our culture. We want the promise of more living, more time – at all costs – and what we end up with instead is more dying…and arrive at very unsatisfying deaths.
Most of us, me included, don’t know how to die…but I am coming to trust that my dreams, as they teach me how to live, are also teaching me how to be with death…and perhaps how to die.
Again and again, as hospital staff were checking in on Patricia, they would say to me, “We’re glad she doesn’t have to die alone.” And it made me start to wonder…what is this fear of dying alone? And does the fear belong to the caregivers…or to the one dying…or to those of us who don’t know how to die?
As present as I was with Patricia…and I was intensely present…I was also aware of the presence of death in the room and it was teaching me something. Perhaps because I didn’t have a strong emotional connection to Patricia there was space for me to be with her dying…and my own dying. Patricia and Death were my teachers.
I slowly became aware that even with our most beloveds in the room…we die alone. This was what I thought as I watched Death come for Patricia. I don’t believe I was superfluous in the room (and the presence of a dear one would be incredible) but the relationship in that moment was between Patricia and Death. So many instances where the one dying waits for family to leave the room and then slips away.
The dying have a new knowing, another love, an old love, who has come upon the scene and it is they who must take them across the threshold.
My own dreams have returned me to an inner connection, an inner support that was with me completely in this room and helped me stay open and humble in the presence of Other.
Just as our dreams come and help us remember who we are, how to be embodied…how to embody our life…I watched as Patricia embodied her death…and it was something holy.
I am learning that dreams reveal our deepest griefs and if that is so, then in helping us feel those griefs…not healing them…but regaining our capacity to feel grief…we regain our capacity to live more fully…and maybe we regain our capacity to die more fully…as author Stephen Jenkinson says, “to be wrecked on schedule.” Maybe that’s it right there… in learning how to feel our grief is also how we learn how to die…and our dreams are teaching us this.
Mary Jo Heyen is a Natural Dreamwork Practitioner working with clients in person, phone or Skype. Learn more about her work with dreams at www.maryjoheyen.com.