Choosing How to End
Our last days are an opportunity to learn life’s last and most powerful lesson: That there is nothing to fear.
It’s the time of year when statistics show that more people die than any other time. For many of us, this is a depressing thought. In my own life, the deaths of the people most significant to me occurred in the fall—both of my parents, a beloved grandfather, a best friend. So fall always brings with it for me a memory of grieving, an anniversary of loss. Even for those of us who have not lost anyone dear at this time of year, the very cycles of nature suggest death. The fall holiday, Halloween, was once celebrated as a time when the veil between this world and that of the dead is most permeable. Now it has become a way to make the awesome mystery of death into something sweet and domestic with skeletons in windows and children dressed as ghosts.
But, of course, death can’t be contained that way. Sooner or later it will burst into our lives again with it’s terrible power to make us feel small and out of control. Many of us fear terrible painful deaths over which we will have no control. This is perhaps one of the most fearsome aspects of death—that it can plunge us into pain or disability beyond our capacity to bear.
But, the more acquainted I become with people at the end of their lives, the more I believe that we tend to die in much the same way as we have lived, according to our temperament, according to our beliefs, and much more in control of the process than we may know. Perhaps the suffering of death is more the result of our fear and struggle against the ultimate loss of control than a random cruel blow of fate.
In my years of working as Director of a Center for Attitudinal Healing for people dealing with life-challenging illnesses, I witnessed many people’s final months of life. I noticed that the people who experienced the most pain and suffering were those who were filled with fear and bitterness. These were people who had been stuck between not wanting to live and not wanting to die before their illness took hold of them, and their dying process reflected the same dilemma. I remember a woman who was filled with anger at her life, cancer being just one more reason for deep disappointment. Her ending months were spent in the hospital, in pain and rage. Her rage became so difficult to be around that her family could barely tend her. Her illness stretched out longer and longer, past her doctor’s prognosis. She just wouldn’t die, until finally, in her very last days, she reached a place of peace. Her anger left her, she was no longer afraid or in pain, she was able to say good-bye to her family with love, and soon she peacefully died.
I have come to believe that death, far from being just the necessary end to life, is a powerful learning time during which we have opportunity to resolve and complete the deepest lessons of our lives. A close friend of mine who died in her thirties from a lifelong degenerative disease, feared dying for most of her life because the course of her illness left people progressively more disabled and in pain. For many years she held a suicide plan in which she could take her own life before she became too disabled to do so. She never resorted to this plan, however, even though her disease did cause increasing pain and disability, because she had stopped fighting the pain. Instead of trying to control death from a place of fear, she allowed its mystery to unfold, trusting herself, trusting death. Toward the end she had many experiences of leaving her body and meeting with spiritual beings who gave her encouragement and instruction. She had many deepening experiences of love with the people in her life. She found that in spite of the pain and the disability of her illness, she loved life more with every passing day. She once reflected in horror that her fear of the unknown almost compelled her to end her life prematurely, denying her this rich time of life.
The more we fear being out of control, the more we enter into death as a victim. The push for the “right to die” saddens me. It says, Yes, dying is a terrible senseless thing so it’s better to beat death to the punch and never have to look into our darkest fears. The more we tidy up death by making suicide an acceptable and readily available option, the less opportunity we will have to learn life’s last and most powerful lesson: that there is nothing to fear.
Perhaps there is a perfect order and rightness to the endings we “choose” even when they are long and disabling. Like a man I knew who worked hard throughout his life supporting five children and devoting himself to a company that did not reciprocate his loyalty, firing him when he was nearing retirement age and had been “used up.” Shortly into retirement, this man developed Alzheimer’s disease and became incapacitated to the point that one of his middle aged sons had to take care of him like a child. His son, who often spent days taking his father along with him wherever he went, said that it was the first time he had ever felt close to the man. He described a time he had even taken his father to his weekly therapy session, and was amazed by his father having a sudden and unusual moment of lucidity. When asked by the therapist if he understood why he had come he responded, “To show my son that I love him,” then he lapsed back into forgetfulness. This was a man who had never been demonstrative, who put his energy into what he thought was his duty: working hard to support his children and his company. Perhaps Alzheimer’s was his way of finally allowing some softness in his life, of receiving support and nurturing for a change, instead of always being the provider. Perhaps in his “right mind” he could never have accepted such a different role.
I knew a woman named Maria, who lived with Alzheimer’s well into her nineties. Her last two years were spent in a hospice where she was sent because everyone believed she had less than six months to live. She had no memory at all in the way we think of memory. She couldn’t remember what happened the day before, five minutes before, or the last sentence she just finished speaking. She had only fuzzy recognition of family members and others, and she was bedridden. She lived many people’s worst nightmare.
Yet there was something magical about her. The hospice attendants found themselves gravitating to her room when they felt bad because they always felt better in her presence, and family members of another hospice resident continued to visit her even after their own relative had died. She chattered happily in conversation that was cryptic—delusion, nonsensical, many would say—describing trips she had made up through the ceiling and into fantastic dream realms. Just when one was ready to write off her ramblings as meaningless she would say something startlingly mysterious, referring casually to specific details of something that was troubling one of her visitors, details she had no explainable way of knowing. She seemed to know when someone was upset, and had comforting words that went right to the heart.
Maria was my close friend’s aunt. I’ve known her since I was a teenager. I sometimes went to visit her in the hospice with my friend. Though she was friendly and personable in her early years, there was something different about her in these last years, a newfound ability to reach people. I will never forget a day I went to see her, feeling slightly down and not really in the mood to visit a hospice. As we walked in the door her face lit up and she talked on and on about how beautiful we both were, how wonderful the day was, and how “romantic” life is. Little by little I found myself drawn into her world, where each moment is fresh and new. The magic fully hit me as I watched my friend talking to Maria, a light transforming her face from the competent, pragmatic woman she has grown into over the years to the fresh innocence I haven’t seen in her since we were teenagers. I wondered if my face reflected the same.
Her son says that witnessing his mother during this time of her life has changed his whole concept of death. He no longer looks upon death as frightening and unknown. It is as though Maria has taken little peeks into the next world and come back to reassure those around her that it’s all right—there’s nothing to fear.
Toward the end she became more tired, less talkative, less understandable, but, in a most lucid moment she said, “My life now is about reconciliation and love. I am so glad I stayed to do this post-work.”
How do you imagine doing your own “post work”? As we are reminded of death in this fall season of growing darkness, let there be an opportunity to look at death: past the tragedy, the awesome darkness of it, to see the wonder. Truly it is a final lesson in trust, surrender, and deep peace. In the end, there is nothing to fear.
Lynn Woodland offers workshops on many topics related to empowerment, transformation, and healing. For information on these, call 1-800-666-0872.