Today I asked for prayers for strength and courage from friends, and drove to the nursing home where a friend is in liver failure. Our friendship started just shy of 40 years ago. As I walked to the door of the place, my legs felt wobbly, rubbery, and I had to stop a couple of times to breathe, to pray. The place appeared like a madhouse to me, but that is coming from someone who feels other peoples feelings, energies, (Yes, I am crazy to most). I felt like I was in a boxing rink until I arrived at her door. Had to turn my head when I saw her, it had been 2 weeks since I had seen her, and she has declined greatly. I sat on her bed, and grabbed her hand. The first thing I did was cry, and tell her I loved her. I am not beating myself up for this. I have no doubt that she knows she is dying, and her love is and has been unconditional. Her love has been a true gift for me in various times of my life when I felt like I didn’t want to, or could go further, and she pulled, sometimes dragged me through it.
As I sat there, I smiled at her many times, said some things, first of all, thanking her for everything she has done for me. There were times when she was right there with me, so weak I had to lean in to hear what she was saying, and while I couldn’t interpret all, I did hear her say “love, love, love, love you!” I told her she was “my Edie”, a woman her senior, that mentored her throughout her life, with love and incredible grace, the same way she had me. She shook her head up and down. I squeezed her hand.
The longer I was there I realized the less I needed to say. All I needed to do was sit with her, hold her hand. She was easily confused, organs shutting down and morphine play a part of that. What do you say to someone who is at the end of their life?
Flashback to my kid sisters bedside four days before she passed, 16 years ago now. at the age of 38. She had told our older sister who was there caregiving that I had to be serious, not my wise cracking self. That wasn’t easy. It meant sitting with enormous pain i was feeling in my heart, or not distracting from her skeletal cancer ridden body and knowing this would be the last face to face conversation I would have with my kid sister. I selfishly said to her “I hope I have been a good sister to you”. She turned her head, telling me NOPE, we aren’t going there. And then it became clear to me. None of this scenerio was about me. It was about her. And so started the next level of understanding within myself, the understanding that while I sat holding my sisters hand, my heart bleeding, right then, right there, this moment was about her. I look back and shake my head, thinking, how could I have been so far off target? You live, you learn, and with every goodbye, you learn.
I am reminded that everyone deals with death differently. NO ONE escapes it. When you are there with them at the end, you can’t live the life you’ve had with them over, you can’t make things better, or take away their physical or emotional pain, or even your own. But bearing that pain, sitting with them, sometimes in silence as they rest, or stare off elsewhere, is really a wonderful gift that we can give them. For the moments where they are lucid, that we will hold onto for probably our lifetime, and the moments in between where you want to be somewhere, anywhere else, but here, now. It is not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t get easier.
It is okay to cry, to show emotion, it is okay to tell them you are going to miss them, or that you don’t know how you will live without them, but THEN you tell them, you will find a way, and you give them permission to let go, you convince them, in your own fragile emotional state, that you will be okay. Why? Because this time isn’t about you, or me. This time is all about the person whose life is ending. The future without them, your own personal hell will begin soon enough. The journey of grief is a hard trek. But it is also unescapable.
This friend experienced a near death experience many moons ago when she was in Maine on her summer excursions. Years of hers and her partners life was spent in a camping ground with others, right alongside York Beach. This is what they loved, this is where they found peace, solace, this is where they visited with and acquired many good close friends. She had emergency surgery, and when she came out of this, with a temporary colostomy bag, she just kept telling everyone close to her “I love you, I love you, if we don’t see each other for 20 years and something happens to me, please don’t ever worry about it, it is ALL about LOVE”. And she was all about love. She learned in that horrible time, when her family and friends were holding their breaths in fear of losing her, that life, and where we go from here is all about LOVE.
We have had many talks on this subject. My favorite, was a three way conversation in which she and I both said “you go from believing, or wanting to believe, to knowing”. We were the lucky ones, as we got the message. Nothing else in life will ever compare or bring you greater joy, or greatest loss, than love. Both her and I have had experiences that gifted us from “wanting to believe” to “knowing”. I know that when you die, it isn’t over. That’s why she knew to forgive, and she forgave me several times. We are all but human. Perfection should not be expected of humans, or it is is, then right then and there we haven’t yet accepted that we are perfectly imperfect, all humans are perfectly imperfect. The sooner we accept this about ourselves, regardless of what anyone else has to say about our “errs or lessons” the sooner we will find peace… And what is the difference between an error and a lesson? Simple… you learn from the experience. Sometimes you learn at a different pace than those around you, or they, you.
Hope changes. The most we can ask for when someone is dying is that they be comfortable, at peace. Words of love can be said through your touch, your presence. There is sometimes nothing you can do or say, and when your heart is up in your throat and the tears are falling down your cheeks onto their hand, their arm, that is okay, too. But then you get strong again, and you remind yourself that this is not yet about you (if ever). This is all about them.
I remember reading the book “Final Gifts”. I have since bought and given that book out probably a dozen times or more, to friends. It’s written by hospice workers, who share what is “normal” in the dying process. And I use that word loosely. There are phenomenas that have happened, over and over again. They’re seeing people who have previously passed. Who are we to say that person isn’t there for them in their transition? Some will say “drugs, delusions”, and yet it happens to many, many, many.
Tonight my heart hurts, and the past couple days I have cried many tears, and know there is a river or more coming, but I also feel full of love, I feel her love, as I sat with her. The first time I pick up the phone to call her, or email her, or stop by her house, it’s going to hurt like a son–of-a-bitch, it’s unescapable. I have a cousin who works in the field of mental health, she and I have had some heart to heart interesting conversations. One day she said to me “I try to talk to the patients about just sitting with their feelings”. That is quite deep and NOT easily mastered. But if we can sit, watching whatever horrors unfold (every person has their own plethora of fear), and just be present, we are sitting in grace.
The ability to sit in your pain, to put on a brave face and give your loved one permission to leave when our heart doesn’t want nor knows how to say goodbye, when you can do this, I believe, you are experiencing and giving the highest level of love. You don’t want them to leave, you see their pain or discomfort and by the end of their passing you are grateful that they are out of pain, that they are at peace. Your prayers go from that of and including ALL five phases of grief (Elisabeth Kubler Ross), to please, take them soon. You want their pain over for them, even though that means for yourself, great loss and pain. This is LOVE! You are sending them off in love.
I have found in life, when I am able to sit with my greatest fears, sometimes watching them unfold before my eyes, the reality is not nearly as bad as living in fear. This journey from birth to death to whatever you do or don’t believe, is doable with LOVE. And if you read the final words of men of “great success”, in the end a hospital bed is just a hospital bed, whether it cost $10 or $10k.
Another friend visited. It was hard for her to see her friend this way. She said “I will pray for a miracle.” I said “she wouldn’t want that, because she knows where she is going, and at the end of all this horrible (and it is hell) illness, she will return to LOVE. And that is all they will take with them when they leave.
Obviously, this blog isn’t for everyone, and obviously not everyone “believes” or “knows” what I do, or visa versa. It doesn’t matter what your religion or NOT. It doesn’t matter your Faith or NOT. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. It doesn’t matter your skin color. Somehow, someway, it is LOVE that will get you through it, and you’ve done your very best to send your loved one off with LOVE. “It’s all about love!” she said repeatedly, when she survived her near death experience.
One more note, I have learned that when someone you love passes, the love doesn’t stop. It grows, miraculously. It grows with new appreciations of what you “didn’t know then”, through missing, and more. Their life end, here, is a painful event for us, it’s a hard chapter in our own book of life. But it’s inevitable. Kindness matters. Love matters. Helping another matters. Mother Theresa “I have found a paradox in love, if I love until it hurts, then there is no more hurt, only more love”.