My husband taught me about death and dying. He had been in an intensive meditation practice for many years and was steeped in wisdom from a wide range of spiritual traditions. He was someone whom people sought out when they were in crisis. Together we helped many friends and family members as they progressed through terminal illness. I watched and learned as he listened to, calmed, cared for, advocated for, and loved them. It was an interesting apprenticeship of sorts, one I hadn't expected in this life.
When he developed a heart condition that involved regular trips to the ER, he started talking to me about his own death. I was terrified by the awful reality that he could go in any moment. Even though that is the reality for all of us, we can usually ignore it. But for me it became very real. He always said to me, "Don't worry about me, hold light for me instead." So I took that on as a spiritual practice, and did my best to hold love and light for him instead of collapsing in fear (much easier said than done, but it taught me a lot about the power of prayer). We had a lot of conversations about death and dying. I wanted to be prepared, to know how I could best serve his transition, if/whenever that day might come, so I asked him to tell me exactly what I should do, in different scenarios. After a long discussion, he looked at me and said "No matter what happens, I am okay. Always remember that. No matter what happens, I am okay."
The day eventually came. For weeks we had been caring for a friend on hospice. After he passed, we were ready to get back to our lives. We went camping and did all of our favorite things - ocean, river, canoe, trees, sky, sunrise, sunset, stars. We went home. A few days later he passed suddenly and unexpectedly, early in the morning. And in that moment I shattered.
Ambulance, CPR, paramedics, healthcare directive, sheriff. Trying to remember what he said I should do. They released his body to me, which was very important because in our spiritual practice we hold 3-day vigils with the body. The vigil was potent and powerful, set up in a silent, sacred meditation circumstance. Many people came and sat, and provided peaceful, loving, supportive presence. Sitting with his body for three full days was indescribable, so many emotions and states and realizations. It doesn't take away the grief, of course, but it was instrumental in coming to terms with his passing and releasing him. Afterwards I spoke to several people who said that initially the idea of a 3-day vigil with a body freaked them out, until they participated in it and understood its power. A few days after his passing, I found a piece of paper that I had forgotten about, next to the side of the bed. A few months prior, he said these words to me. At the time I said "That was beautiful - can you write it down so that I will always have it?" "When I die, I want you to be joyful. To relax and recognize every moment of your awareness is the light of everything... your own living being, the beauty and ordinariness of all, and be grateful and happy, anchored and held by Love."
A friend and healer sent this to me after he learned of my husband's passing, which I think is a really beautiful perspective on the nature of health and mortality: "He was such a good man. The nature of his passing shows us the possibility of different points of view that we can have about things, for although he may have had coronary health issues, I never knew a man with a better heart. He is a reminder to all of us that true health need not be equated with the absence of pathology, but rather can be viewed as the presence of something so much more precious—a good spirit filled with love and compassion. In this way we can be healthy even in the midst of sickness; we can flourish even in the face of our own mortality. He will always remind me of this."
When it comes to facing illness and mortality, religion and spirituality can be invaluable. There are traditions and beliefs that have stood the test of time over the course of centuries and millennia. One of the reasons commonly referenced to explain why society has grown ever more death-phobic is that we have become ever more secular and therefore removed from traditions and rituals known to bring solace in the face of fear and mystery. Humans have been dealing with infirmity and death for a very long time. So, when looking for ways through, consider revisiting faith or spiritual practice.
Sometimes it feels as though joy and peace are matters of choice. Or, commitment, or practice. However you describe it, whenever happiness is a choice, we strongly suggest you choose it! It’s wonderful for you, and wonderful for those who love you. In fact, it’s common for someone’s dying wish to be the well-being of people they love.
“True health need not be equated with the absence of pathology, but rather can be viewed as the presence of something so much more precious—a good spirit filled with love and compassion.” Such an important - and accurate - statement. Health or well-being is more than just the absence of disease. Likewise, the absence of disease does not automatically make you happy or compassionate.
Spending time with the body of someone you care about can be deeply therapeutic. This protects and protracts a unique moment, allowing for all sorts of emotions and thoughts to arise, and, to a degree, in the presence of the person you’ve just lost. It also allows time for your nervous system to adjust to the fact that this person’s body was only ever simply a shell; that the person is gone. It takes a while for such a fact to really sink-in; viewing the body can help this process along. The same is true to some degree with open-casket viewing at the time of the funeral. Often times, people don’t realize this is a choice. If the person died in a facility, it might be difficult to reserve the room for very long but it’s definitely worth asking. If the person died at home, you can simply arrange with the funeral home or mortuary a deferred pick up time.
One important note: a dead body begins to decompose practical immediately. If you plan on viewing the body for more than an hour or so, especially in warmer and more humid climates, you will want to surround the body with dry ice. In this way, a body can safely lie in state for several days.
-BJ Miller, MD