Making Death Beautiful

In my early 30s, I lost both of my grandmothers. I remember distinctly the final months and weeks for both of them. I lived in a different city so I had to fly to LA to see them. I felt frustrated about putting my life on hold, and then guilty for feeling so frustrated. But when they were gone, I just wished that I had spent every moment with I could have with them in the end.

One of the things that struck me was how limiting our society’s relationship is with death, given its universality. Of course, losing someone you love is one of the hardest emotional experiences of one’s life. But, given that everyone’s time comes eventually, it seems more acceptance could lead to less suffering.

I also remember the beauty in those final weeks. The outside world came to a halt as my father, aunt, and I spent our days with my grandmother. We told stories, we laughed, we cried, we held each other. My grandmother’s final days provoked a closeness we hadn’t experienced in years, if ever.

So when a friend recently realized that all hopes to save his father’s life were in vain, my immediate advice was to spend as much time with his dad as possible. I told him to do everything he could to stay present. Stop reporting out to friends and family about the latest update on his father’s state. Stop answering the inevitable barrage of “How are you doing?” which, while well intended, does not help. In short, stop giving his attention to the outside world, and focus on his family. I was certain those would be some of the most treasured moments of his lifetime. I promised to send messages of support but told him not to respond.

Miraculously just a day after I gave him that advice, I found myself on a weekend workshop at Esalen with none other than BJ Miller, an expert on end of life. I recognized him immediately from his TED talk a few years ago. I remember so distinctly BJ closing the conference, this presence hit me like a ton of bricks from that stage. BJ spoke of his work at the Zen Hospice center in San Francisco and how we are in need of redesigning end of life. I put my fork down mid bite and sat down besides him. He proceeded to give me incredible advice to relay to my friend for his final days with his dad. I know I’ll be relaying what he said to many friends to come, so it felt prudent to just write a post about it.

Here’s what he had to say:

  • Be present. As outlined above :).
  • Be okay with the hard parts. It will get awkward and painful and ugly and horrible. Don’t turn away from it. Be there for all of it.
  • Use your gifts. My friend, a successful musician, created a soundtrack for his father’s dying days. Whatever it is that makes you come alive, think about how you can integrate that into the experience.
  • Create rituals. Think about the experiences or ceremonies that you might want to include in the final moments. My friend turned his father’s deathbed into a sacred space. Perhaps that means including pictures of your loved one’s life, candles, or sharing favorite foods one last time.
  • Consider artifacts. BJ suggested artifacts as a part of creating a sacred space. Maybe there’s something that you want to lay them to rest with, or perhaps there’s something of theirs you’d like to hold close. Or, maybe there’s something you can customize for those final moments which will serve to remember them by.
  • Talk to the dying. It is important to talk to your loved one, even if he or she was unable to respond. But, BJ also stressed the need to read the signals of the dying. If they show signs of distress, furrowed brows for instance, back off and leave them be.
  • Tell him or her you’ll be alright. They may be ready to go, but they are worried about you. Telling them that you’ll be ok can help to easy any anxiety about your well being when they’re gone.
  • You may need to leave the room. It’s natural to want to hold vigil at someone you love’s deathbed. It’s natural to feel like you don’t want them to be alone when they take their last breath. But, some people need to die in private. Having family by their side can hold them back. Remember then that it’s not just okay but possibly important to leave. Make sure you tell them you love them every time you do.

My friend’s dad transcended (as he told me, what a wonderful way to put it) a few weeks ago. I hope my advice helped to make it a little less tragic. I remember developing my wedding ceremony with my husband. We drew from tradition, but we made it our own. I created an environment to help me have a natural childbirth, including a special playlist, palo santo, my meditation shawl, and artifacts collected from the women in my life. Death is another rite of passage in the human experience. It won’t stop being difficult, but with a little shift in perspective, I think we can make it a little less painful and a little more beautiful.

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