Random Hot Tip About Dying #5

the-tunnel-of-trees

(This photo is taken from an email forward I received full of beautiful tunnel photos, none of which were credited of course.  Grrrr.  I’d LOVE to give credit where it’s so richly deserved so if anyone knows who took this shot, please, please, please let me know!)

This post is continued, as expected, from Random Hot Tip #4.  It’s a looooong one.  Sorry.  (Although if you think reading it is hard, you should try writing it.  F**k.)

Last but not least we come to random hot tip #5:

There’s some version of an afterlife/afterwards for everyone.  Pick yours and start making it work for you now.

To be honest, this morning I’m wishing I never added this tip to the list.  It’s a loaded subject…something I realized with chagrin as soon as I sat down to write this.  Plus, I’m not a chaplain or an atheist or a ghost or anyone else qualified to address either side of this existential topic with authority.

But since I swore to myself that this time I’d follow through and explain every last tip I so glibly tossed out there, I guess I’m stuck with it. I’m only going to share what I observed and then one thought I had about it, hopefully without upsetting anyone enough to make them yell at me.  Here goes.

One of the many intriguing things I encountered while working with hospice was the wide range of beliefs about what happens after a person dies.  I’d already heard about most of them of course, but still, they take on a whole new light in a hospice setting.

For one thing, they finally matter.  A lot.  The people I was working with were about to actually find out what happens for themselves, and they cared about it in a way that people who aren’t dying yet just don’t.

In addition, I was experiencing a kind of full body immersion in each belief while hopping from home to home.  Working in hospice, it’s critical to understand and embrace the unique beliefs of each home we enter in order to best support the dying person and their loved ones from the foundation they’ve built in their own lives.  We don’t have to adopt their beliefs of course…we can’t, there are too many of them and often conflicting besides…but we try to observe every sign of respect, and look closely for whatever value, love, and strength is inherent in each, and then use that as much as possible to deliver our help.

(It really changes you, by the way, learning how to find, respect, and embrace the good in someone else’s beliefs without having to believe it yourself.  I can’t tell you how much more mysterious and beautiful and friendly the world becomes in an instant.  It’s pretty amazing. Harder to do outside a hospice setting though.)

I couldn’t help but notice how much this particular belief, the one about what happens to a person after they die, influenced the way each person viewed the value of whatever life they had left, as well as shaping how they faced their dying process.  While each belief I encountered was absolutely unique, collectively they seemed to break down into three broad categories:

1) The belief that their spirit or consciousness or self will continue in some way afterwards.

2) The belief that their consciousness or personality or sense-of-self will end with physical death (and hopefully that their legacy lies in the good effect they had on the world.  Without this second part their depression was pretty pronounced.)

3) The belief that they really, truly don’t know what happens and they’re waiting to find out.

The majority of people around here fell into the first category, which was also the one that seemed to help most with a person’s fear of dying (unless they felt guilty about something and worried about punishment after the fact.)

The number of people in the second category were far fewer and, while they savored the sweetness available at the end as much as anyone, overall I found them less prepared to cope with the many indignities involved, with a greater tendency to devalue their life as their helplessness grew.

And in the end I didn’t see anyone who genuinely believed number three.  While there were a number of people who said they didn’t know what happens (actually, they always said nobody knows what will happen) it eventually became clear that really, they believed in one of the other two but were just reluctant to say so for various reasons.

Okay.  That’s what I observed.  Now here’s one of the main thoughts I had about it.

I think all three beliefs have the potential to wield a final influence that’s helpful or harmful.  But in reality, there was a general trend worth noting.

Belief Number One…the one that says some version of the self continues after death…usually did the best job of helping the dying person face and navigate the profound challenges involved at the end of life.  These people tended to experience less bitterness about the indignities they were experiencing and genuinely longed for their lives more all the way to the end.

Now, BEFORE ANYONE STARTS SCREAMING AT ME:

I’m not suggesting that this in any way makes Belief Number One a superior belief, or that it means everyone should embrace it.  I’m not.  That would be utterly useless and disrespectful besides.

What I DO think is that Belief Number One has had tens of thousands of years worth of a head start on weaving some kind of nourishing, helpful meaning into the overwhelming existential realities of dying and death.  Collectively, we’ve been living with, exploring, and deepening our belief in an afterlife since the dawn of human history so no wonder it works for us now.

Belief Number Two (let’s leave Three out of this for a moment) is a relative newbie on the scene and has, in some ways understandably, spent more of its time trying to reject the meaning offered by Belief Number One than it has developing an alternative but equally helpful and nourishing meaning of its own. But with the growing number of people embracing this belief I think it’s work that really needs to be done if they’re not to overwhelmingly choose suicide or euthanasia at the end as seems to be the current trend. (I only mention this because killing ourselves and each other, especially in large numbers, can wreak havoc on a society.)

We humans need meaning. It’s not a weakness, it’s just a thing.

I have a couple of friends who believe they’ll cease to exist at the point of death (actually they believe everyone will, but then that spirit of generalization is a quality generally shared across beliefs.)  But they also feel a profound curiosity about some tendrils of mystery they glimpsed during an experience with the loss of a loved one.  They feel attracted to what they experienced and uplifted by it, but are reluctant to admit it publicly because it’s precisely the kind of thing that’s so easy for the other side to misunderstand, twist, and then crow over.

But in private they share that they’re as moved as anyone else by the symptoms of strange and serendipitous beauty they witnessed towards the end.  It’s just that they ascribe the mystery involved to something else, even if they’re not entirely sure what yet.

And then there’s Belief Number Three.  Even though I never worked with a patient who truly embraced this belief, I know other people who do, at least so far.  (We’ll see if it holds up under the final test.)  And, after six years of watching people die, this is the one that I myself have drifted in closest to.

I’ve had a number of people over the years ask me some version of the question After everything you’ve seen what do YOU think happens after a person dies?   And honestly?  At this point I kind of feel like the sky’s the limit.  I suspect anything can happen.  Maybe ALL of it happens, just to different people.  Maybe some go to Valhalla or Hades or Heaven, maybe some stick around for a while to help their descendents along, maybe some really do just cease to exist while others merge with Nirvana or a mountain or the entire universe somehow.  Maybe some reincarnate, or get stuck haunting for a while, while others continue on in some way or form or place that nobody has even imagined yet.

I really, truly don’t know what to believe about all that anymore.

But I’ll share something I experienced numerous times that left a deep impression. It was this sensation of a vast kind of love that tended to show up in the dying rooms.  How, when everything else was finally stripped away and all of us were left there, raw and quivering and totally exposed, what remained was this current of love in the room that swept me off my feet and sent me reeling every single time.  I honestly, hand to god, don’t know where it was coming from…that’s my mystery.  Whether it was just me feeling it, or if it was coming from the other people who were there, or from something outside of us all, or some combination that then took on an existence of its own, I just don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s influence was about as real as it gets.  It was tangible and helpful in the most physical way, and weirdly it both seared and reassured me, and sometimes other people told me it helped them, too, and over time as my eyes adjusted to it, I started to see it in a lot more places.  Like…well, almost everywhere.  And after a while the sheer energy of it started to transform me to the point where I was having a little trouble functioning in the world actually, which is an interesting but different story.

And then one day I realized, to my surprise, that I was shifting away from everything I used to believe in and starting to just believe in that experience of love instead.  And that’s kind of where I am now.  I have no idea what will happen after I die and don’t really care beyond some mild curiosity.  However, I do hope that whatever happens, this big love that gets generated from where-I-do-not-know will still be around because, if it is, I feel like I can deal with anything else.

That being said, the question of “afterwards” feels kind of irrelevant to me right now.  The big gift I’m getting out of believing in this love is that, whatever happens next, it’s nurturing and comforting me today.  It makes me want to be a better, kinder, more compassionate and understanding person now, it lends me courage and meaning and strength now, and it inspires me to take better care of my little corner of the world right now.

And ultimately, I think that’s something practical and immediate that any of these belief should also shoot for.  Whether or not they wind up being true in the long run, if they deepen and enrich and strengthen our lives and communities and world right now then we should develop and embrace them.  Because we desperately need all the help we can get while we’re here.

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth.  Add a couple dollars and it’ll buy you a beer.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

 

After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission

Good Without God

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The Titanic and Something Mysterious Going On in the Dying Rooms

(Image from the blog Corazon’s Corner.)

I indulged in a day of lunch and theatre with an old friend from the hospice I used to work with recently.  Les Miserables.  Music to knock your socks off and blow your hair straight back…especially as we were sitting in the first row directly in front of a two-story speaker.  I couldn’t hear for an hour afterwards but I didn’t want to either, at least not until my body finally stopped vibrating with the memory.

It was a beautiful afternoon spent with a dear friend doing wonderful things.

He used to be the social worker for our small hospice before the owner died and everything fell apart so naturally, over lunch, we spent some of our time reminiscing about the old days.  We got to talking about dying and death in general and, before I had a chance to say anything, Dear Friend blurted out.

“Everyone is SO obsessed with death!”  He seemed excited which, for Dear Friend the Placid…the Even…was startling.  “It’s all you ever hear about!”

He went on to complain about the constant, battering stream of drug commercials, all the news coverage of new medical research that only ever talks about mortality rates and never about quality of life.

The assumption seems to be that if a person is alive, then of course that’s better than being dead…no matter what.  Even though when you actually talk to people on the street, the majority say that after a certain point of escalating suffering and loss (that quality of life thing again) they think they’d really rather just go ahead and die.

It was such a relief to me, to hear somebody else say it.  And it struck me again, how those who have worked around hospice generally wind up coming to the same conclusion.

Dying just isn’t that scary for us anymore.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve been around it a lot.  It’s become our familiar and we’ve made our peace with it.  We know we’ll be doing it and that’s no longer a problem.

Over time we came to see how dying fits into the grand scheme of things and how, more importantly, it can actually top off a life in a way that rights some of the wrongs that were made.  We’ve seen first hand, multiple times, how dying can deepen the beauty of a life, spread that beauty around to others, and even leave that beauty behind as a legacy of good that lasts a very, very long time.

Unlike a lot of people who say they know they’re going to die, we REALLY know it, and the knowledge has largely freed us from the constant, underlying fear that people usually don’t even realize they’re living with all the time.

What IS still scary though, even to us, is all the possible wrong choices around dying that are available in today’s world, choices that we know can make dying a lot harder, make the difficult parts of it even worse than they already are.

They’re choices that are proliferating at a blinding speed, too, that are being pursued, promoted, and paid for by that same deep, unconscious fear of dying that’s basically running everything at this point.  Our medical institutions and research facilities, our public health policies, our hospitals and doctor groups, our politicians, and our insurance companies have all evolved around this one, central terror of dying to the point where mortality rates have become the key measure by which everything else is judged.

Dying…and desperately avoiding it…has long since gobbled up the majority share.

There are a few people scattered around who, like Dear Friend and I, can see this, and some of them are even people in high places with a lot of influence.  Some of them watch the teetering tottering mess with the same dismay that we feel, while others rub their hands together with glee, jump into the chaos, and do what they can to further, then capitalize, on all the fear.

It’s a mess.  It reminds me of that classic scene sequence from the movie Titanic, where the iceberg has been hit, the ship is half sunk, and her decks have finally collapsed into a chaotic, milling scene of abject human terror and despair.

It’s quite grim.  The movie makers did a good job there.

And then…and then.  They do something magical.  The camera abruptly pulls back from the closeup coverage of all the chaos and noise, moving to a more distant, mid-range kind of shot from up in the sky and the noise and chaos are instantly reduced.  We can still hear the screaming but it’s now far away and less disturbing.  The ship, in all it’s eerie, glowing destruction is much smaller now, it doesn’t overwhelm us anymore, framed as it is by a huge sweep of dark, silent ocean that somehow manages to contain and quiet it all.

It’s true.  A larger perspective always helps.

But the magic isn’t over yet.  The camera suddenly pulls back again, to an even farther point up in the sky, a place so high that we can now see not only the vast ocean containing the tiny ship, but the vast night sky containing the vast ocean that contains the tiny ship.

From that height we can’t hear anything anymore.  Not a single visual or auditory detail of the tragedy is left and it’s a relief to be removed from it like that.  To be offered a perspective, a scope of time and place, so vast that it easily contains and cradles even that much suffering.

I think about it a lot, why spending time in the dying world helped to alleviate my own fear of it, and I think it’s because this same kind of thing happened.  Somehow, by being there with them—each rare and beautiful dying person—by laying my own hands on their quivering bodies and fears and dreams, it made the camera inside my eyes magically pull back, too.  Little by little, day after day, mostly to a midrange place where I could still hear and see all the suffering, only surrounded by a great stillness.

But then every once in a while, for some reason that I still don’t understand, (probably love come to think of it…love can do a real number on perception) my eyes would pull back farther than that, out to a place full of twinkling stars and deep time.  And in those moments the people I was looking at, the homes I was working in, would fall away into profound silence while everything started to glow.

The wasting body beneath my hands, the faces around me crumpling in pain or anger or grief, all the dying room litter of soiled wipes and used commodes, of sweaty, wrinkled clothing, ice chips, and pill cups, would transform into something that was simultaneously exquisite and heartbreaking—as if everything, all of us, were turning into a giant constellation of stars that were just hanging there, glowing and guiding, in some other kind of vast but invisible night sky.

Although no.  Not turning into.  It wasn’t so much like we were becoming a constellation of stars.  It was more like that’s what we’d always been but then we forgot, consumed as we are most of the time by the engaging, delightful, overwhelming barrage of all life’s little details.

And for those few luminous moments, I’d stand gazing around me slack-jawed and wide-eyed, my hands frozen in whatever task they’d been doing, my breath suspended with the wonder of what I was seeing.

And then whatever was causing it to happen would change and the camera in my eyes would zoom back into mid-range again, the glowing would disappear, the noise would resume, and I’d be able to move again.

Then later, when I’d leave the dying rooms and walk back into the noisy, chaotic world of regular living, my eyes would zoom back into close range again which, frankly, is where they are most of the time.  I’m usually just as overwhelmed by details as the next person.

But even though those strange, glowing moments were brief I can still remember them vividly.  I can return to them and touch them, over and over again, whenever I need to.  Those seconds of looking at the world from somewhere farther away and higher up, from a place where every ordinary, everyday, stinky, crumpled, decaying thing suddenly looked like a miracle and a gift.

And just remembering it, I’m surprised all over again each time.  Overcome.  It makes me fall head over heels in love with life yet again because somehow I still keep forgetting just how BIG this all is.  Big enough to tenderly hold not only the nubile and lovely, but the terrified and aching as well.

Big enough to contain even dying.  In the end it all really is just a blink.  A beautiful, hard slogging, transcendent, soul crushing, miraculous, grief filled, fascinating, bewildering, breathtaking, fragile, prostrating gift of a blink.

Thank God it eventually ends.  Who could take this kind of fabulous beating forever?

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

That “thing” in the header

Someone has finally asked about it.  I was beginning to wonder.  It’s been up for the last…what?…nineteen months now, and just when I was concluding from the uninterrupted silence that nobody else found it as arresting as I do, Nel over at Life’s Infinite Possibilities (with stunning headers of her own btw) said…

What’s that “thing” (for lack of a better word) on your header?

Here she is in full.

I believe she was an arthropod of some kind but I can’t be more specific than that.  I found her exposed just as pictured, over on the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula three or four years ago. A seagull–or perhaps one of the many eagles that inhabit the place, I don’t know–had taken a couple bites out of her before being interrupted, maybe by the hubster and I as we meandered up the shore.

By the time I reached her side, she was still alive but mortally wounded. I found her extraordinarily beautiful…the colors so vibrant on an overcast, dreary March day that they took my breath away.  She was a tiny, dying spot of brilliance in a wild landscape of muted grays.

She also vaguely reminded me of female genitalia.  Like orchids do, only with an arthropod’s twist.  It both tickled my sense of humor and made me ache for her vulnerability all the more.

After I took the photograph I cupped her oh-so-gently in my hands, walked down to the water, and placed her right-side up again in the sea. She curled a little when she felt the stones beneath her…the cradling of the water…and I like to think she was happier there. Safer. Like the difference between dying peacefully at home, surrounded by the familiar and loved, versus upside down and alone in a car crash on the side of an anonymous interstate.

Here she is right-side up and back in the sea.

A little farther down the beach we also found a dead seal that was only beginning to decompose.

I originally planned to use this photo in the header but it never felt right.  Looking back now I think it’s because my primary focus here is on dying rather than death.  Both are profoundly beautiful to me, but with as much as I love the stars and stillness of deep night, it’s the elusive magic of twilight…that impossible alchemy that occurs as something is changing its very state of being into something else…that haunts me.  I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to transitional environments like coastlines and twilight hikes and storms and hospice. Because they provide portals into the strange, limbo world of transmutation where I can then observe and try to document its mechanics, firsthand.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011