In the year 2007, both my parents were diagnosed with cancer. They died in hospice after a lot of care in 2008, only 6 months apart. Being the main caregiver throughout their dying process showed me clearly just how removed from death our culture had become. As each one of my parents reached their last week, I sensed an amazing presence in them, as they were shifting back and forth between life and death consciousness. By then it was very clear to me: first you live life – and then you live death.
It seems that just prior to the transition we call death, we wander back and forth, prepare our exit, already arranging the pick-up with loved ones who have crossed this mysterious threshold before us. These benevolent spirits were clearly around as my parents were readying to die, guiding us through the often difficult process. While doctors and nurses wanted to keep up their rescue routine, offering as much activity, diagnostics and medication as possible, my parents and I had decided to minimize heroic efforts, so that my mom and dad could comfortably slip into the other world, without the constant stress and interruptions associated with modern medicine.
As my father faced his impending death with a curious openness, I noticed how even material gifts he would have loved a while ago lost their appeal. The best food no longer interest him. He had his eyes set on the beautiful world that he had recently discovered in his long hours of daily sleep. My father died very peacefully in his sleep, as I was holding his hand. I kissed him on the forehead right after his last breath and felt his timeless spirit exit his lifeless shell with energy and joy.
My mother died a very difficult death, as she was heavily medicated to fight devastating pain from her bone cancer tumors. Being around her in her last weeks was a challenge, as I witnessed her desperately wishing for death to come. My mother had been a warrior and a “worry-er”, never content, always finding issues to struggle with. She died as she had lived, amidst massive struggle, in great tension up to the end. Her mother, who had passed years ago, appeared to me the night before my mother died. “We need to help her”, my grandmother told me. “Tell her that I will pick her up on the other side. She’ll never be alone. We can’t wait to have her with us.” The next morning I told my mom grandma’s message. Tears ran down her tired cheeks. My mother had never believed in neither God nor life after death. Now, after her many morphine-induced visits to the other side, she relaxed visibly. Two hours later, she made her transition as my sister and I held her close. I’m sure my grandma was there to pick her up.
For the next three days following her death, I stayed in my bed next to hers, touching her cold, rigid hands, combing her hair, caressing her face. This body had been the beloved avatar that housed her soul – the body that had birthed me! Even though I could clearly see that the essence of mom had left this form, I was eternally grateful to this body. I washed, oiled and dressed it with the help of a nurse. I kept the wake, talking to her, playing guitar, decorating her body. The closest family members came to visit. Eventually I lifted her into the coffin and drove with her to the crematory. I followed the coffin and saw it going into the fire. I watching it burn for 4 hours. I watched as they sifted the ashes and grinded the biggest bones to dust. Afterwards, I drove with the ashes on the passenger’s seat to our house, talking to her all the way. I clearly felt she was there. We kept her ashes in a simple clay urn until the burial of the ashes under a family tree as was her wish, with a beautiful ceremony for the closest people in her life. My mom had made me promise her to not leave her side, throughout every step of her last days, until her ashes were in the ground. My mother had been very afraid of her body being stored in a cooler full of dead bodies. She had also worried of what strangers might do to her body in a funeral home. It gave me great peace to know that I had honored her last wishes with love and respect.
At the ceremony for her, each one of us was free to contribute to the ceremony without priest. Some of us sang songs or said prayers, others told stories of her life. We sent white balloons with little handwritten messages up into the afternoon sky. Then we sat down for an elaborate feast together. The entire day was spent in grateful reminiscence of her life. We looked at photos and the artwork she had created – and it was clear to all of us that she was with us, that there was continuity and love beyond death.
Being with many dying friends and family members and accompanying every step of the preparation of their bodies and the funeral has forever changed my beliefs about death and dying. It has taken all fear away, it has given me something to be curious about and look forward to, as I know we will all be reunited on the other side. I truly hope that more people can overcome their fears and be with the dying, as they are amazing teachers. Embracing death as a mere shift in our relationships, not as an end to them, has given me one of the greatest gifts of my life – knowing about our continuity, sensing loved ones guiding us from the other side. Very often I feel their presence, they feel like powerful allies, even more so than during their lifetimes when human ego sometimes getst in the way. Living and co-creating our lives consciously with our ancestors (some might call them angels) is a wonderful experience!
Ziri, 45, Los Angeles