An Eagle Feather, A Blessing and the Mystery of Life
To this day I find being present with someone at the time of death incredibly sacred and filled with mystery. In one moment the shell we call a body is animated with each breath, a unique personality, and a vibrant energy that marks our presence in the physical world. Then, just as quickly, that last breath is taken and the same shell remains lifeless. The energy is no longer present. What happened? Where did it go? How does it even initially manifest when a baby is born? These are significant awe inducing moments to say the least.
In my own life there were two pivotal events in my youth that set the stage for me to venture on a quest for answers to those ineffable questions.
First when I was fifteen and an unexpected physical health challenge surfaced. Due to the fact I was incredibly sensitive to the medications and had so many reactions (which later made it uncomfortable to continue) I was forced to dig deeper into what we now call whole person care. People weren't really talking about it as openly back then.. Whole person care is not just looking at the physical concern to improve health but is a call to explore the emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual domains of our being. It was through that journey and a lot of deep work that I healed over time and eventually brought my body back to a greater place of balance. The lessons from this experience continue to be a gift.
The second event was when I was eighteen and my closest girl friend died suddenly. It was unexpected and tragic. Her death took place in my final year of high school and the news completely blindsided me. The months that followed were very challenging on so many levels. During my first semester at university my grief stricken heart was at war with the academic program I found myself in while trying to discover some semblance of meaning in it all. I eventually left the program and declared to myself that I was going to "follow my heart" in life not really knowing what that meant but it seemed right at the time.
A number of months later another unique turning point came when I had a dream with my deceased girl friend that was both healing and transformative. It felt real, like she was actually there, and was filled with love, light, and a deep, penetrating sound. When I awoke, I clearly felt different. This was coupled with a strong sense that there is something more beyond what we can see and that she was somehow alright. That morning, for the longest time in the aftermath of the dream, I just laid in bed feeling bathed in a calm of pure love I didn’t want to disturb. The experience changed the course of my life.
How could a dream do that? It felt so real. At the time it seemed like another invitation to delve into the existential elements at play to try to make sense of it all. It also sparked a curiosity to discover if others had experienced something similar.
A compassion for those suffering along with a true curiosity about the mystery of life had formed. There was also a quiet reverence for the unseen ineffable forces at play. It always fascinated me while being present with hospice patients (and those in my own personal life) when they would quietly share unique dreams, visions or experiences with light and sound as they were nearing their end-of-life transitions.
Leap forward now (many decades have passed) to the McGill International Palliative Care Congress in the fall of 2022 in Montreal. I had submitted an abstract for consideration on the subject and was accepted to present a 45-minute workshop exploring the mystery and unique events we sometimes witness around the time of death.
When I first launched my YouTube series "Inspiring, Heartfelt Conversations" I made a point of inviting some of the founding pioneers in palliative and hospice care to record with me. Voices that I felt needed to be captured, not only to learn from their wisdom but to honour the care and pure intent behind the creation of these important services we are blessed to have access to today. Was moved to find that these pioneers where not only skilled in the craft of palliative and hospice medicine, but they were also curious and open to the mystery and sacredness of this profound life transition. Heartfelt, gracious human beings. A true privilege to sit in conversation with each.
For those scientifically inclined more research is now emerging on the subject due to the work of people like Dr. Christopher Kerr at Buffalo Hospice in NY on death bed visions and dreams. Dr. Bruce Greyson and the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual studies on near death experiences. Some initial work by linguist Lisa Smartt on the changing language of those nearing death along with Dr. Joshua Black’s research on grief dreams. All of whom I have been blessed to interview in my YouTube series and learn from their wonderful work.
Despite this information I found it interesting to prepare for the presentation while trying to find that artful balance of research and heart on a subject that is truly difficult to define. During the workshop we would explore the benefits of being curious and open to what individuals nearing death tell us they are experiencing firsthand. How can we be true witnesses and learn from these moments to support the transition to be smoother in every way? Honoring all the dimensions of life. Acknowledging these unique events has been proven to not only help the person dying and their families but staff members present in the care.
It has been my observation that people are more likely to share these intimate events when they feel safe, listened to and seen. Not judged. An open mind and heart are key.
Despite all the work put into my preparation one of those notorious moments of doubt began to creep in prior to presenting and I wondered if I could truly do justice to the subject? A rather unique assignment. Head and heart again were in this dance for balance, harmony, and respect.
Then a beautiful synchronistic moment occurred. While in the lobby of the conference venue a woman walked by with what appeared to be an eagle feather in her hand which caught my eye. It was large and rather regal. As she passed, I asked her, “Is that an eagle feather?” “Yes”, she said with a smile. “Would you like to touch it?” She then extended her hand to gently offer the feather to me. “Absolutely!” I said smiling back. Eagles have been a profound symbol in my life. Watching them soar on the wind currents high in the sky has always been inspirational. I gently ran my finger tips over the feather and drank in the texture. Feeling its strength and delicate nature at the same time was somehow calming and meaningful. We both were smiling during the exchange. Gratitude was expressed when we parted.
Just before the conference opening ceremonies were about to begin I discovered that the woman I had met was the companion to an Indigenous Elder who was to offer a blessing to begin the evening program. As she accompanied the speaker to the stage she carried the same eagle feather in hand. The Indigenous Elder then did the blessing in her mother tongue. Though I am not from that culture I was moved to quiet tears. My heart was profoundly touched, and it felt like I too had been given a private blessing just moments before when I was invited to touch the feather.
After the evening presentations were complete there was an informal social gathering and many of the conference attendees were mingling. Off in the distance I saw the Elder and her companion and went over to thank them for the blessing but also the gift of running my fingers over the feather prior to the opening ceremony. Told them I had been feeling a bit nervous and this unexpected gift helped calm my concerns. When the women learned what my talk was about they were quick to respond with such respect and encouragement for the subject. Highlighting the importance of acknowledging these sacred moments in life in general not just when someone is in the process of dying. A more personal dialogue then ensued and both where so honouring of my courage to tackle a subject that is truly hard to define in life let alone within the context of the conference.. Their kind support was appreciated beyond words.
My presentation went extremely well with positive feedback from those in attendance. Many of the participants shared that they felt a wonderful balance of heart and a deep invitation to be more curious about these rather mysterious end of life events. They were also grateful to learn of some of the new research surfacing on the subject.
These kinds of experiences have been documented throughout history and in diverse cultures around the world. They appear to be a universal phenomenon.
May we all continue to be open with a childlike curiosity and wonder when these moments occur while companioning those nearing death or in grief. In turn helping to make the transitions perhaps a little smoother for those we serve.