It’s OK To Still Love Their Bodies Once They’re Gone

Before Mr. B died, he made sure his body would be left lying for twenty-four peaceful hours–at home–before going to the crematorium.  How sure?  Sure as in he sat down with his lawyer and wrote it into his will sure, making his wish legally binding in Idaho.

His request may sound strange to a lot of people–it certainly does to the average person around here–but the practice is customary among Buddhists who believe that the bond between personality and body takes time to unwind after death.  (I’m not Buddhist but I think the following link is a fairly good explanation of Buddhist beliefs about death and dying for those curious to learn more.)  Of course, the Buddhist belief is different from the prevalent one held in our culture which says our personality/essence/soul/consciousness/whatever one calls it…our us-ness…separates from the body completely at the moment of death.  Even Christians and scientists are aligned on this point–they don’t seem to diverge until the question of what-happens-afterward crops up.

Mr. B’s family was totally on board with his choice and perfectly willing to keep him around.  And me?  I was all for it, too.  I had a personal stake in finding out what effect this choice would have on the loved ones Mr. B was leaving behind. Two years later and I’m still grappling with the distress I felt at abandoning my mother’s body in the hospice house where she died.  I looked at this opportunity with Mr. B as my chance…a gift!…to see what it’s like for a willing, loving, respectful family to keep the body of their dead beloved with them for a little longer–to discover if it helps ease their grieving afterwards.

The hubster and I lingered for an hour or two after Mr. B died, drifting along on the tender current of hugs, tears, laughter, phone calls, rehashing, and story-telling that always follow a good death.  But finally I needed to head home.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night and required a shower and a nap.  Just before leaving, I returned to the bed, leaned over, and laid my cheek against Mr. B’s, whispering I sure do love you, sir.  Have a safe journey.  Knowing you was an honor and a gift.  Then, unexpectedly, I started to cry.

Mr. B’s face was still soft and life-like and, for whatever reason, in that moment it felt like like he was still there.  Not necessarily inhabiting his body per se, but just present somehow.  Around.  It seemed like he was smiling and relieved.  Like everything was okay.  No…better than okay…good.  It felt like he’d suddenly gotten a lot bigger, too, in some insubstantial but still oddly tactile kind of way.  Hard to describe.  (This experience of a sense of presence is actually common among the bereaved, with some studies putting the rate of occurrence at well above 50%.)

That momentary sense of his presence pierced the numbness of fatigue creeping over me and sent me plunging back down into my heart again.  The tears felt painful, bewildering, and sweet, all at the same time.  It reminded me of the day I discovered the stuffed animals my daughter abandoned the day she left home, still sprawling against the pillows in her bedroom.  It was unexpected, walking in and finding them like that–an innocent reminder of her childhood life with us–and I curled up on her bed, gathered them in my arms, and lay there in the ache of remembering for the longest time.

We shared a bond, these toys and I.  They’d been left behind, like I’d been left behind. She loved them, like she loved me.  And lying there clinging to their soft bodies and fake fur, I was awash in all the nourishing, enduring love she’d left behind for us.  I could feel her again, all across the bed, and I realized we’re all born magical like that–with a mysterious ability to place a tangible, lasting kernel of ourselves inside the people we love so that no matter where we go, no matter how big the hole our departure creates, at least we never leave those behind us completely alone.

(This post is turning out to be longer than I originally anticipated so I’m going to spare you all and spread it out over a couple posts.  Next time: Their Body: It’s Not Them Anymore But It Still Deserves Our Thanks)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011 

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The Burden of Miraculous Choices

One of the strangest side effects of my years working with hospice was the collapse of my sense of belonging.  I had no idea beforehand, how much of my identity was tied up with the various beliefs I held and the different groups I identified with because of them.  National, ethnic, familial, political, economic, spiritual, you name it, I had come to define most of who I am by the ideals I held.

But then, as I entered homes filled with beautiful, vulnerable, dying people…who it just so happened believed in a wide variety of  things that were frequently different, even opposite, from my own…I made the unwelcome discovery that many of my ideals were actually fed by lurking, unconscious prejudices that lay, seeping and contaminated, just underneath.

I was naturally horrified.

One of my biggest prejudices was against the medical/industrial complex and especially the pharmaceutical branch.  (Please understand, my admission of a prejudice is not to say there isn’t a problem.  I’m not alone in my concerns about our over-prescription, over-use, and over-reliance on drugs.  A lot of thoughtful people, both in and out of the medical field, are worried about it.)

But for complex reasons, including a couple of personal encounters with disrespectful (and in one case unethical) doctors, I went beyond simple concern into deep prejudice.  I began to think badly of medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance people as a whole.  I came to question not only their motives but their basic humanity.

I secretly began to suspect they were monsters.

But then one day I had this irresistible urge to work with the dying and as a result, actually entered into the medical/industrial complex as a participating member.  I joined a hospice, took a class, and became a nursing assistant.  I did my clinical hours in a nursing home.  Visited patients in hospitals.  Worked closely with nurses and doctors and even filled prescriptions at pharmacies, delivering them to the people I helped care for.  And lo and behold!  Somewhere along the line, in the gentle, surprising way that grace frequently delivers its gifts, I rediscovered the value, relief, and miracle that modern technological advances have to offer.

I discovered there aren’t really any monsters after all, just an odd amalgamation of deeply caring, deeply flawed human beings.

As a result of this journey, modern medical technology has taken on a slightly different cast for me.  Not so much a cold, uncaring, manipulative, disrespectful power that takes over our bodies and ignores our humanity, but an offering of something extraordinary, a possibility of the truly miraculous.

I had a patient once.  Maggie–dear, beautiful, polio stricken Maggie Full Of Grace–who wrote a little book about her sixty year journey with the disease and it’s after effects.   I read it after she died and in it I found the answer to a question I’d always wondered but never found the courage to ask her.  How did she feel to be one of the last to ever contract polio?  The vaccine was introduced two years later and the disease, for all intents and purposes, was eradicated.  Did she ever feel cheated?  Did she ever think Why me?  Why wasn’t it discovered two years sooner?

I found the answer in her book.  First, she described the terror she and her husband initially experienced in those earliest days, not for her but for their three small children, the fear that they might also contract the virus.  She’d been nursing her five-week old baby at onset so he was particularly exposed.  That description was then followed by this passage:

“One of the greatest blessings I would later thank God for is the presence of the vaccine, the fact that our children and grandchildren will never get polio.”

I started to cry when I read it.  It was as though she was still there whispering to me.  Still trying to answer the secret question, the real question, I so desperately needed to ask her.  She’d been powerless to stave off infection from the polio virus itself, but somehow she’d successfully fought off the bitterness and regret that so often follows in the wake of such trauma.  How?  In the face of decades of the resulting hardship and suffering,  how in the world did she protect her heart from that kind of collapse?

And somehow there the answer was, miraculously written down for me in her book.  Her love for her children and gratitude that they were spared served as her vaccine.   The power of those two emotions filled her heart with a kind of immunity that no bitterness, however real, however justified, could overcome.   It was something I’d always heard but somehow never really understood before, the simple difference between looking at a glass as half full rather than half empty.  Both realities are always true.  Both have an impact that must be absorbed and coped with.  But the choice of which one to cleave to is always ours, which one we’ll ultimately allow to fill our vision and heart.

I’d never understood before, how often I fill my own with emptiness.  No wonder I’ve struggled with so much sadness.

It was the people I met like Maggie Full Of Grace who started anchoring me back into an older place inside myself, turning me into a person far more tolerant and oblivious than I’d been before.  Over time things like politics and religious differences, economic backgrounds and cultural beliefs, all the myriad and ever-multiplying array of opinions that seemed to matter so freaking much beforehand just didn’t anymore.  Over time I became freer and happier and better and more loving…and increasingly confused by the change.

It was like climbing up to the peak of the very highest mountain in the middle of a vast wilderness where I could finally see forever and ever… but then the wind sucked the map out of my hands and blew it away.  The views were spectacular in a way that knocked me to my knees, sure, but how the hell was I ever gonna find my way back out?

(Don’t delete this photo again dammit…it’s my picture!)

How was I supposed to navigate without the instinctive bearings my prejudices gave me?  I’m still, five years later, struggling to figure that one out.

Maggie came forward in time sixty years to instruct me on the brutal, harsh reality of how it really was back then.  Watching her struggle every single day within her twisted, paralyzed body, hearing her stories of those long, painful, uncertain months in the polio hospital, of how many husbands abandoned their wives, how many crippled children were left behind and forgotten, all these things brought that world to life for me.  I finally got it, why the word, polio, used to strike such terror into the hearts of all who heard it.  Why Jonas Salk was such a hero and how the vaccine really was a miracle of deliverance.

Life before penicillin, immunizations, knowledge of basic hygiene, and the vast array of other developments and discoveries we have today was often cruel.  What we were forced to rely on instead back then was Adaptation with all its tools—the human qualities of creativity, determination, strength, patience, fortitude, and grace.  And now, today, we sit at the junction of these two ages, emerging from a period of helpless vulnerability when we were forced to cultivate our deepest, inner humanity just to cope and survive, and entering into an age of blossoming outer powers where we no longer have to simply grit our teeth, accept, and endure.

We’ve discovered a will, an intelligence, and an imagination within ourselves that can generate miracles…and the breakthrough is heady.  It’s created an insatiable hunger within us for more power, more knowledge, more salvation.  We now dream wild and intoxicating dreams of freedom from all disease, all aging, all pain, all suffering.

Even, perhaps, from death.

But I’ve watched a strange and disturbing thing happening as our outer powers increase.  It seems that our inner powers, the long-cultivated wisdom of our deepest humanity, seem to be diminishing as they lay, forgotten and misplaced in the hallways just outside of research labs and insurance offices and fear-filled waiting rooms.  The ancient tools that served us for thousands of years—things like courage, sacrifice, endurance, surrender, the ability to recognize and be grateful for all that we still have—are threatening to atrophy with a current wave of under-use.  And in their place things like fear, anger, blame, grasping, desperation, and bitterness frequently rise instead.

I have hope though.  I don’t think the current trends will last.  I suspect that we’re simply in the first flush of wild discovery and have yet to understand the limits, comprehend the costs, of pure, unbridled dreaming.  After eons of helpless suffering the pendulum is swinging wildly to the other extreme , but pendulums always swing back.   Someday we’ll remember that we can’t just eradicate things like suffering and death because to do so would also eradicate the great arc of wounding and joy that is life.

No.  I think we’ll eventually settle down, find some equilibrium, and begin the practical task of roping in our miracles, tethering and training them, instead of letting them stampede through our lives, trampling the older, extraordinary knowledge we’ve already developed.

Here’s hoping for a divine marriage between the two someday soon.  A day when our modern technology becomes firmly anchored in our ancient humanity, and when our collected wisdom is further deepened by the discoveries and miracles of today.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Sense of Presence (Can you feel me now?)

Uncle George, husband, father, friend, and legendary storyteller.

I thought a lot about my encounter with Alf and the Fly this weekend, about how vivid the sensation was when I felt Alf’s presence during the memorial service.  The subject was up again because we drove down to Reno to join extended family in celebrating the life of an uncle who died earlier this year.  During a conversation with one of my cousins (a daughter of said uncle), she described a moment, while going through his things shortly after he died, when she suddenly felt like he was right there with her, giving her an intimate message of love through, of all things, an obscure word in one of the National Geographic magazines that he loved.

She, too, experienced a sense of presence.

Many of you might recognize what she described because you’ve felt something like it yourself.  It turns out that experiencing a sense of presence is fairly common, not only among the survivors of those who’ve recently died but in a variety of other settings as well.  The experience is so common in fact that it’s been given names like the third man, widow effect, and the ever magical imaginary friend of young children. There has also been a fair amount of research done on the phenomenon and I’d like to touch on a few of the studies as referenced in a fascinating book called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.

(BTW, if you ever get a wild hair and feel like reading a variety of personal accounts of  a sense of presence, here’s a forum on The Third Man Factor website.  These examples are unique because most of them result in a person surviving a situation where otherwise they might have perished.)

Geiger’s book deals primarily with the experience of a sensed presence in extreme, survival situations but he references other circumstances where the experience regularly manifests.  Needless to say, given my focus on dying, I was particularly interested in those dealing with the widow effect, the experience of a sense of ongoing relationship with someone who’s died.  He cites one study by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tuscon in 1988, where about half of the 500 widows questioned reported sensing the presence of their deceased partner, and another survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales which produced a similar finding.

“That study, by W. Dewi Rees, published in the British Medical Journal, found that most people who had the experience reported they had visits intermittently throughout the day, while 10 percent said they ‘felt that the dead spouse was always with them.’  All said they sensed the presence of the deceased; a few also said they actually saw or heard him.  Rees found the experiences were in no way frightening, and concluded, ‘these hallucinations are…normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood.’  Other research into widows of men killed in automobile accidents in Japan found the incidence even higher, and there, too, the researchers concluded the presence ‘may be a positive sign in helping them adapt to the loss.'”  (pp. 153-154)

Geiger also sites a larger survey conducted in the UK in 1995 that didn’t just look at widows and widowers, but included a broader cross-section of society.  It revealed that “the continuation of an important relationship after death is not confined to those who have lost a spouse.”  People reported sensing the presence of parents and other family members as well as friends.

Clearly this experience of sensed presence is widespread among the recently bereaved.  Yet prevalent or not, as most people are painfully aware, there’s a social stigma attached to talking about it.  I’ve found the majority of people, at least initially, are reluctant.  Some, deeply so.  They’re afraid others will think less of them for believing in “that kind of thing,” or worse, that people won’t believe it happened at all.   But it does happen, to a large segment of the population, and I hope that Geiger’s book will be a watershed, marking a shift in trend where it becomes more acceptable for people to speak openly about their experiences.

Because being able to speak about these experiences is important for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

I found it interesting that Geiger himself expected a lot of resistance to the idea that the experience of a sensed presence is real and was surprised when none materialized.  He realized most people don’t doubt that the experiences are actually happening.   The controversy centers around what might be causing them.

The first thrust of The Third Man Factor is to confirm the experience itself and Geiger lays out evidence that makes it indisputable.  People are sensing something that feels like a presence.  (This is huge.  Absolutely huge. He’s finally provided a framework within which people of all intellectual backgrounds can talk about the subject.)

The second purpose aims at reconciling the traditionally supernatural elements of these experiences with possible scientific explanations and he presents some compelling evidence for the role that stress, loneliness, and neurological function play in the phenomenon.   The book is well researched and, while his conclusions ultimately raised as many questions for me as they answered, I was still wildly relieved to hear the subject discussed in a practical, factual manner instead of the half-embarrassed, half-apologetic whispers that I usually hear.

Now, let me be clear.  While I’ve long been intrigued by the dynamic tension between science and spirituality, and I’m always curious to hear what both sides have to say, on a purely practical level I, personally, don’t care what’s causing these experiences of sensed presence.  It’s not relevant to me.  It’s an interesting question, don’t get me wrong, and fun to explore when nobody’s dying.  But when someone is dying, the arguments are really just an intellectual exercise.

Once you’re in that room and it’s you or your loved one lying on the bed suffering, once it’s you facing down the maw of unbearable loss, once it’s your family that’s been swept away in the maelström of vulnerability that dying entails, you’ll probably discover that the arguments about what’s causing an experience of sensed presence aren’t nearly as important as whether or not it helps.

It’s like drowning in the middle of the ocean.  If a boat pulls up and throws you a life buoy you probably won’t care about where the thing was manufactured.  Nor will you ask to see a business card from whoever is throwing it to you.   What you will care about, deeply, is whether or not it floats and, if it does, you’ll grab it with gusto and hang on for dear life.

I think everyone should be allowed to speak openly about any unusual experience they have during the dying process.  (FYI, there are a lot of them.) Because even though no one can definitively explain them yet, they still provide enormous comfort and reassurance during a journey that’s tough at best and devastating at worst.

I’ve often felt frustrated by the fact that such a luminous, nourishing, (and it turns out commonplace) human experience is relegated to the back of the shame-closet where we stash our bogey men and under-the-bed monsters.  I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel embarrassed because they experienced something that helped them cope and heal.  Neither should anyone have to hide the fact that they’re experiencing something lovely even if it’s odd, because doing so robs the rest of us.  I’ve studied the faces of those listening when this kind of thing is shared and the effect of these stories on others is almost always one of wonder, hope, or relief.

Which are good things, things that are in relatively short supply.  We want more wonder, hope, and relief in the rooms of the dying.  Trust me on this one.  They help.

These days, in rational society, we tend to resist things that involve Mystery.  We have our science and we like our rational explanations and we’re uncomfortable with odd-shaped things that sound weird and don’t fit.  The problem with that is, as soon as we enter the dying process we also enter the Mystery.  The two things are a package deal and the ticket covers both rides.  Everyone has to grapple with the fact that questions grossly outnumber answers at the end of life, both existentially and physiologically.

Whether these questions revolve around an experience of sensed presence, or the surprising level of foreknowledge or control many have over the actual moment of death, or the perennial biggie concerning what will happen to us once it’s all over, or the most basic question of Well…what’s causing this symptom?, one thing is certain; sooner or later something will occur during dying that everyone will guess at but no one will know.  And if that something is a sense of presence that lightens the load or eases the pain?  If it provides a pool of nourishment from which we can drink a little courage, respite, or strength?

Then perhaps the most useful explanation is simply that these experiences of sensed presence are a rare and beautiful gift at a time when we need one the most.  Maybe it’s okay to not know any more than that for now, but open both hands anyway, accept the gift, and whisper thanks.

For anyone interested, here’s a brief interview of John Geiger talking about the book, The Third Man Factor.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn