Advice From a Friend Facing Her Death
At present a number of my very close friends are dealing with cancer and other life threatening illnesses. Some of them are closer to facing their own imminent departure; indeed a sensitive time to traverse. One of these individuals is a girlfriend who was just recently admitted to the hospice/palliative program to receive added support. Comfort and pain management are now the primary focus. Rose’s journey is also twofold in that her partner and former caregiver died only a few months ago. It was sudden and unexpected - throwing her into a whole new experience without him, grieving the loss of his presence and support as she faces her own mortality.
It is inspiring to watch how she is dealing with all of this in a very open, gracious way and it is a gift for me to be part of her journey at this time. Last week on a beautiful sunny day we were sitting outside having lunch at a local café. Rose was sharing reflections she had not expected about facing death and her life history. At one point I asked her, “If you could tell people two key things to remember when around someone who is dying what would they be?” This was her answer:
1) There is no wrong way to face your death.
2) Be careful with the energy you bring around the person who is dying.
There is No Wrong Way to Face Your Death
Rose emphasized that anyone in the midst of dealing with an illness and immersed in the dying process, is embracing it in the best way they know how. Recently she was visiting with a group of people who were speaking of spontaneous healings they had witnessed and claimed if a person just dealt more deeply with their emotional wounds, anything was possible. As they spoke she quietly reflected on how those comments made her feel. Was she a failure for still having cancer? If she had only healed her emotional wounds more profoundly would the illness be gone? Rose felt discouraged, alone and somewhat defensive when listening to them speak. Yet she is incredibly open on every level; has done a lot of processing around her emotions and spirituality, ate well and followed a clean lifestyle. The cancer, however, is clearly on its aggressive journey to win and overtake her vibrant life force. She is not afraid to speak openly about her dying, about what is happening to her physical body while preparing extensively on many levels for the reality of her impending death. Her life has been a vibrant one with world travel and many special friends and experiences. She has lived holistically in many ways and did not want to venture into the conventional route of treatment. In fact, she initially resisted it profoundly until at one point the pain in her back became unbearable and the only thing that has kept it under control is palliative chemotherapy. This was both a relief and a surprise to her. It has not been easy to tolerate the drugs but it has given her an extension of life that she has appreciated. She admits that soon she will let go of this too, as it is now having a reduced effect on her comfort care and quality of life.
She was determined when she said, “Please emphasize to people that no one is doing this wrong!”. Until you are in the midst of the experience you will not know your response. You will not understand how strong the range of emotions and reflections will be and how each will surface in their own unique and unexpected ways. She said listening to some people’s theories on the “right” way to face your death actually has at times made her feel frustrated; an added burden to her heart instead of a help. I started tearing up as Rose was telling me this because she has been so gracious in dealing with the loss of her partner, the progressing illness and pain, and being open to and embracing her death at the same time. Rose was surprised to discover how strong her natural survival instinct is. Even if there are weeks of life extension dancing between the side effects of chemo to offer some brief enjoyable moments, it has been important to her to pursue that route. Others may take a different path. She does not see it as a denial of her death rather a very strong and instinctual love for life at play.
Remember to listen. Deeply.
Let the individual process their end of life journey without judgement. Own your own triggers and projections. Hold the options open to them, but let their heart and being prepare and make choices in their own unique way. It is tailor made for what they can perhaps receive and embrace at the time.
Watch the Energy You Bring Around the Person
When people are very ill they become heightened in their sensitives to so many things; sounds, smells, touch and intent. The energy you bring around the person who is dying can be overwhelming if it is too “busy” and trying to direct events or steer things away from what is happening in the moment. My friend says that when people come around her with that “busy” energy she knows they are afraid. Afraid to sit and just be with her. Afraid to let whatever is happening unfold. Let the emotions be what they need to be naturally; good, bad, uncomfortable or indifferent. She thanked me for the way I brought an energy that was gentle and open, not imposing. She could see how the years of hospice work had refined that skill.
When training hospice volunteers and medical staff, I have often spoken to them of blending with a person who is dying or with their caregivers. Both during the end of life process and after as they come to terms with the loss. One of my favourite films that expresses this well is The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford. If you have not yet seen the film I recommend watching it to learn how he not only blends with an injured and traumatised horse to foster a sense of trust and healing, but with the humans in the film as they come to terms with their own grief. One scene in particular is quite poignant. The horse is startled by the sound of a cell phone going off as he is being exercised in a stream by the trainer. Like any good flight animal when there is a perceived threat, he bolts off into the field to get as far away from human interaction as possible. Everyone wants to capture the horse and force him to come back but the horse whisperer takes a different approach. He just crouches in the field, giving space and waits for the horse to come to him and “join up”. No pressure. He blends with where the horse is comfortable. It is a magical scene to watch. A trust develops between them that could never have occurred had he tried to impose his will on the animal or direct the connection.
Quiet yourself when being around someone dying. Blend gently and take their lead. Letting them show you what is needed in the moment. It will deepen the trust and safety and in turn, the depth of the connection and experience between the two of you.