The evening sun was glowing bright orange on the horizon as I sat on a bench at the marsh, watching the ducks bobbing in the still water of the pond. I looked up and then I saw her. She approached tentatively and we looked deeply into each other’s eyes. It took a minute for the recognition to move from a stirring memory (We know each other) to falling into each other’s arms with the familiarity of long lost sisters. She was the wife of a patient of mine who had passed away a few years ago, and we had developed a relationship of trust and deep affection as I came each week to care for him. It was a lovely family – gentle, refined people – and I became very fond of them. It was a joy to go there and I had looked forward to my visits. We would laugh and talk about books and their love of rocks and the sea. Even when he could no longer eat, she continued to cook because he still wanted the house to be filled with the seductive smells of her savory cooking.
In the twilight now she and I sat together and held hands. I listened as she spoke of the ebb and flow of her lingering grief and her gratefulness that he had passed so peacefully at home. She shared her memories; saying that he had lived his life with richness and integrity, without regret, and this had given her much solace these past few years. She remembered, almost with awe, how it felt to bear witness to his transition from this life, and how he surprised her because he did not hold back when it was time to let go.
The day before he passed I came to the house, as his condition had declined dramatically and he was now entering an active state of dying. I knew it would not be long. He seemed quite comfortable and relaxed, his breathing slow and shallow. I went to his bedside and stood silently for a few minutes, then quietly said his name. Immediately I felt regret. He was always such a gentleman, consistently polite and gracious. So I watched with some horror as he yanked his consciousness to the surface with enormous effort and struggle so he could respond to me. He opened his eyes but couldn’t speak. His body had deteriorated, and I could see that he was no longer clinging to this life. The veil between the two worlds of body and spirit had become very thin and I could feel him slipping to the other side. I put my hand gently on his chest and softly said, “Go back. Go back. There is nothing you need to do here now. You are almost there and you are good.” He gave a sweet smile, closed his eyes and fell deeply into a non-responsive state. He died peacefully twenty-four hours later.
It was a teaching I have never forgotten – what it was like to energetically feel someone’s soul pass through that thin veil – and I learned how it is not helpful to try and redirect their attention, not with our voice or our touch, because it holds them here and causes conflict. They are over it and moving on. Goodbyes and unfinished business need to happen before this moment.
As others and I recently held a silent and loving vigil at the bedside of our dear friend in her final hours, I tried to feel into her experience, imagining it was I in that bed passing out of this life, leaving my body behind. Of course, we can never know until it is our time, but in that moment – under such supportive circumstances – it did not feel too scary.