People would say, “Isn’t it depressing?” It wasn’t to me. I felt blessed to companion the dying, being present as they opened up to share their stories, their pain, and their hopes in those last hours. One of the things I learned was a magic word, a sacred question: “What?” Sometimes, it was “How?”
I have been spending a bit of time with a young man who is dying of cancer. I’m struck by how peaceful and serene he is, surrounded by a peaceful, loving family. In his small private space, one of his rellies is always touching him, massaging his feet, rubbing his back. The first time I went to visit, I stood at the closed curtain, then turned and left.
A few minutes later I was speaking with a woman outside and told her “I didn’t want to intrude. I’m an outsider.” She wisely said, “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to an outsider.” I gathered my courage and went back inside, peeked around the curtain, and a young woman said, “Linda! Come in, come in.” She introduced me to other family members as “the virtues mama.” I was immediately embraced into the circle of caring.
Using the magic word, I asked the young man, “What kind of a day are you having?” He smiled a little smile and said in a soft voice, “It’s a good day.” “What makes it good?” I asked. He just smiled wider and nodded to the young woman massaging his feet. “I don’t wonder, with these loving hands around you.”
He nodded. “How is your pain?” I asked. He indicated he was free of pain. On the next visit, he was getting a back rub. He and everyone there was smiling serenely. On my next visit, I’ll ask the family, “How are you finding such peace?”
The atmosphere in that little room is far different from the anxious tension I often saw in family members doing a “death watch”. There seems to be a deep acceptance of death as a natural part of life - a faith that, as islanders often say, “It’s all good.”
One of the gifts in my life is a relationship with a Catholic sister called “spiritual direction.” Although our faiths have different names, they are in complete harmony as we share our spiritual journey and prayer life.
This week, when we met on Skype, she said something fascinating: “Life is about learning to die.” We learn to die to the things of the world, to the demands of ego. “It’s a new purpose for getting old.” She and I have both struggled with being perfectionists all our lives. Now well into our seventies, as death inevitably approaches, we are both letting go of driven striving. It reminds me of what a Native Canadian medicine man told me once. “Do you want to be driven or do you want to be led?”
Judi shared with me something she heard in prayer, “Not perfection, but connection.”
It is far more important to be present with love and compassion than to be seeking approval for being perfect, doing everything right. I told her what came to me in prayer recently: “I have led. You have followed. That is the secret of a joyful life.”
We are all sinners – often off the mark -- but we are beloved in the struggle. When we follow what we know is right, it brings real joy. No matter where we are in the cycle of life, it is far more joyful to be led by one’s soul than driven by one’s ego.
All that matters, really, at the end of life looking back is our love, forgiveness, gratitude, service, and honesty - the virtues we grew.