Making Peace with Dying
All the words that I utter,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is.
—William Butler Yeats, Poet
A significant amount of the general population now lives in heightened awareness of the importance of saying “I Love You” and “Goodbye.” Some belong to the group of 57 million people who serve as caregivers for loved ones who are terminally ill. Others are people deeply touched by those with terminal illness—for example, friends and extended family members. Still others simply live in awareness of the importance of each moment and the closing inevitability of dying. Their desire to learn about dying may spring from feeling profoundly connected to others through the luminous web of all life; they are ready to make peace with dying even before crises call them to do so. In all of these situations, by caring in a positive and creative manner, aware people can effectively change the entire landscape of living and dying.
Where do you fit in, you who hold this book in your hands? You, my reader, can be part of this change-making group. Are you a caregiver at this time? Recent research says that caregivers of loved ones on Hospice provide approximately eighty-seven hours of care per week, for a duration of approximately seven months. If even a small amount of this applies to you, surely you value practical information on caregiving. Moreover, according to a recent study, 80 percent of caregivers want to know what to expect at the time of dying. This book will help you. It discusses both practicalities and spiritualities.
As a caregiver, you are about to climb over a mountainous fear of dying and gaze on the dawn. You are courageously about to be present for and aid in a loving, peaceful, examined dying process. Helping you surmount discomfort with—even a debilitating fear of—dying is one of the goals of this book.
As an end-of-life caregiver, your perspective on the dying process is crucial to the experience of everyone involved. To climb into the anguish of an ensuing dying and to be there wholly and effectively for your loved one will take some work. That work will range from examining your understanding of dying to changing your language about dying—even to changing the very way you breathe, gesture, and create sacred space around you. To thrive on this upward terrain, you need great tools. This book will be your guide in gathering those tools.
First, realize there are many effective ways to approach the dying process. As a spiritual mentor, I call the time of approaching dying Angel’s Eve. It is the poignant, powerful space just on the threshold of dying. On Angel’s Eve gives your hands, voice, and heart guidance. It helps you satisfy that ineffable longing to do something effective at the bedside.
Once a caregiver asked me, “If I bring my father to the door of dying, who will take him over the threshold?” As a chaplain and person of faith, I had to reply, “I know, I do know, help will be there, waiting for him. I know this because of the law of compassion.” Let that be our first thought as we enter into deep discussion on Angel’s Eve.
WHAT IS THE TASK OF ON ANGEL’S EVE?
As a non-denominational minister and spiritual mentor, I yearn to pass on skills concerning the dying process to you, your family members, and your friends. I desire to help you imagine, and then realize, a healing peace and a cleansing comfort to be accessed during a loved one’s dying time. For over a decade, I have worked in Hospice both as a Volunteer Coordinator and a Hospice Chaplain. Often, I hear exasperated people say, “There is nothing more to do.” In response, I affirm strongly that there is plenty left to do beyond aggressive treatment: settle the past, share the prevailing wind, catch memories, treasure loving moments, record smiles and tears, and look towards the dawning horizon.
What could this book possibly teach? Actually, there is a lot of practical material to be learned about the dying process. Frankly, some say our culture has created a tremendous fear of dying—that we are dying phobic. They say we do not want to accept dying, so we fight it at all costs. When we have no more choice, we hide it at the end of the hospital corridor and ignore it. For example, people rarely talk about dying, especially to a terminally ill person. Too often, reactions to dying are avoidance, excessive joking, or preoccupation with the morbid and macabre aspects. The language style can be negative, gloomy, or whispered. That’s where we need to begin to effect change. The goal of On Angel’s Eve is to give you new tools in order to change this kind of dead-end, discouraging thinking.
Changing the Language of Dying
One of the first concrete steps to take is to change the words associated with dying, for the power of language mirrors the movement of the soul. Notice, then eliminate from your vocabulary, phrases such as, “Dying is hard,” “It’s so sad,” and “Dying is difficult.” Those phrases are clichés, and moreover, they can initiate self-fulfilling prophecy. Thoughts have impact. Watch any crowd to confirm that thoughts are things.
I have found that by calling the dying time Angel’s Eve, we reverse old ways of thinking. Instead of frightening and dark associations, we associate an “eve” with fulfilling times such as a holiday eve—the celebratory night before a great day of rest for many people. Reframe your language, listen to yourself, and choose life-affirming vocabulary. Away with grim metaphors! Let clear words and blessings surround the beds of the dying.
Making Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Room for the Angels
We will refurbish the spiritual space surrounding your loved one’s dying process. By making mental, emotional, and physical space for the angels—including both invisible angels and visible loved ones who serve as if they are angels—we provide a welcoming environment and anticipate happiness on the other side of the door.
You, as a caregiver, also have a need for ministering angels. There are times when you will be physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and mentally overwhelmed. Do not be afraid to accept help, especially from those “deep angels”—the ones from the unearthly realms. Many report angelic presences at the bedsides of dying ones. Angels come not only to welcome the dying one but to console the caregiver, if that caregiver allows. So make room for these helpers by opening your mind and heart. A simple affirmation that you are willing to be open is quite enough. Right now, simply say, “Welcome, Friend.”
In optimal situations, angels gather to share the eve of dying, be they family, friends, volunteers, professional staff, or invisible comforters. Angels are teachers of possibilities, courage builders, outside-the-box thinkers. They are those visible and invisible forces that make dying yet a second birth. Take advantage of this enlightening opportunity. Open the door. Dust off the welcome mat. The angels, who take themselves lightly, are waiting with gifts.
Using Poetry and Prose
In this book, you will find poetry and stories from around the globe. To honor my Hospice’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1997, I performed many of the poems you will find in this book. My first On Angel’s Eve program took place at the Morris Museum of Art in Morristown, New Jersey. Such a sense of angelic tranquility filled the hall that many audience members commented on it. I would like to offer the same sense of tranquility to you. Furthermore, I say great poems quietly at the bedsides of countless people, suggest them for funerals, and certainly enclose poems in condolence letters. Now I wish to share these poems with you.
Skillful poets distill the essence of the examined life and the examined dying to touch us profoundly. Thus, each chapter features at least one poem. These poems become like angels themselves—angels who skillfully teach lessons that address life and dying. Poetry has an intimate power to console. According to United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins, as printed in The New York Times on September 12, 2001, “In times of crises it’s interesting . . . it’s always poetry. We want to hear a human voice speaking directly to our ear. We console each other with poetry.”
Poetry has a public function as keeper of ritual and memory. As medical doctor and poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” The soul hungers for poetry, so cherish poetry when your loved one is dying. Poems have the power to name the pain, move the spirit, and inspire the individual. Poets have wrestled with the concept of dying since language developed. Let your anguish be soothed by those who have captured the process in creative language.
Changing your language of dying, making room for the angels, and finding solace in poetry and prose are just a few of the many helpful ideas that will prove to be extremely practical on Angel’s Eve. This book is specifically designed to prepare you, to comfort you, and to ignite your creative side so that your loved one can experience serenity and you can have many cherished memories for years to come.
HOW IS THIS BOOK DESIGNED?
On Angel’s Eve begins with a simple definition of the dying time—when the life force subsides in the body. But, as you will learn in Part One, “Preparing for Angel’s Eve: The Task, the Team, and the Talk,” certain keys best unlock the doors to the dying time. First, you need a key to your own door. So Chapter 1 is titled “Putting Dying Into Perspective” and helps you enhance your understanding of dying, as well as caregiving. It offers healthy ways to view dying and new language to use. I begin by telling stories of my family’s “dyings.” Chapter 2, “Building the Team,” addresses how to build a support circle. In addition, Christina M. Puchalski, MD, provides you with helpful guidelines on being a supportive caregiver. In Chapter 3, “Developing Skills for Graced Conversations,” you refresh your communication skills, studying your own listening habits, body language, and even breathing patterns. This chapter also teaches you how to center and balance yourself.
Part Two is titled “Finding Comfort: What the World Religions Teach Us About Dying” and offers wonderful spiritual support. Chapter 4, “Transcending Form,” examines the ancient Hindu tradition as it pertains to graceful dying. Use of mantras, going beyond illusion, and how great yogis prepare for dying are guideposts you can use yourself and pass on to your loved one as appropriate. Chapter 5, “Changing Realms,” presents Buddhist systems of thought on overcoming suffering. The Four Noble Truths can offer solace, whatever your situation may be. Practical techniques of meditation, mantra, breathing, and taking on suffering (tonglen practice) suggest life-changing approaches to ease the suffering of dying. Judaism is studied in “Honoring Wisdom,” Chapter 6. The traditions of the Psalms, giving wisely, repairing the fabric of the world, and even writing an Ethical Will, in which a person passes on a philosophical legacy, are explored. In Chapter 7, “Coloring Outside the Lines,” we look at the Christian tradition, including its Gospel phrase, “Me Phobos,” or “Be not afraid.” The words of Jesus Christ, which direct us toward solace, are studied, and there are even encouraging stories about forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life.
Part Three, “Using Your Time Wisely: Creative and Practical Activities for Angel’s Eve,” suggests hands-on techniques on how best to handle the time before dying. In Chapter 8, “Healing and the Arts,” the integrative good medicine of art, poetry, and music are examined so that you can design a sacred and beautiful space around the dying process. When you make a room beautiful—with music, art, stories, even laughter—peace comes. In Chapter 9, “Singing the Body Electric,” you will learn about Jin Shin Jyutsu healing touch. It is a gentle, non-invasive energy modality, originating in Japan and popular worldwide, that balances the body-mind-spirit system. This therapy calms, relaxes, and relieves the stress associated with the rigors of the dying process. Moreover, Jin Shin Jyutsu touch therapy is effective for both the dying and those who care for them. Simple steps are provided and the Jin Shin Jyutsu modality’s effectiveness is confirmed through accounts of my own experiences as a Hospice Chaplain. In the last chapter, “Comforting With Courage,” you will gather a few final tools for overcoming fear. A good dying occurs in an abode of peace, and freedom from fear allows peace to occur. Read Chapter 10 so that you can reach the summit.
Finally, in the Appendices, you are invited to “get real” about end-of-life care concerning practical issues that must be addressed: proxies; resuscitation forms; living wills; financial issues; and who to notify. Your loved one will experience greater tranquility knowing that these areas of concern are under control. In the meantime, you will become a compassionate advisor and a safety net.
On Angel’s Eve functions to replace the images of the Grim Reaper that often accompany the final moments. It does so by providing alternative ways to describe and enhance the dying experience. Sincerely, I assure you that it is more than poetry to imagine that angels gather on the eve of dying, including sacred angels and loved ones who serve as earthly angels. In fact, the majority of the world traditions support this view. Let the eve of dying be angelic, bright, full of caring. A shift to thinking that the last moments are in the hands of the angels, as I believe, opens up vistas. Dying might be a sad process, but it does not have to be accompanied by fear. Sadness and fear are separate emotions. Sadness makes us tender, it wrenches the heart, but it is so much better to experience than not to experience at all.
Every dying is a journey. With a road map from the poets, the storytellers, and each other, we can come to Angel’s Eve with serenity and confidence. Instead of forcibly interrupting the natural rhythm of dying with fear and panic, you will want your loved one’s dying to have the gifts of calm and quiet. Making a transition to tranquility empowers the spirit to depart smoothly. With the help of On Angel’s Eve, you can make this comforting vision of dying a reality.
On the following page, a poem by renowned nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson begins our study of the dying process by reminding us that our minds are limitless—more expansive than the skies. We can behold and create that to which we set our minds, for our brains are of God, the Source, the Light. Certainly, then, we can conquer fear and attain peace during a dying time.