Have you been with someone when they died?
Dear Was Wondering,
Thank you for such a question. I find myself wondering where such a question came from…
To answer though, yes, I have. In what now seems like another life I was a pastor, or a minister, or a preacher, or whatever you want to call that role. On more than one occasion I have stood beside someone as his or her last breaths were drawn. And even a couple of times I was honored to hold his or her hand as they passed on to that next place. It is hard to type those words without tears forming in my eyes as I believe those moments to be so very sacred. There were times when the death, the ceasing was peaceful. But there were also times when she or he was fighting to stay alive, but they lost. While I took comfort in those calm passings, I admit to a certain strange affinity for those who raged against the dying of their light. To see with your own eyes the incredible will to live, to stick around just a little while longer even in the face of longstanding debilitating pain, is a truly humbling experience. I don’t want to romanticize it though. There was always, at least for me, a smell of death, an odor you never ever forget. And in the eyes of some of those who raged there was the unmistakable look of fear. Of course for some, much of their awareness and memory had long faded so there was a startling, if not chilling blankness.
It is hard to talk about that someone dying without talking about the others in the room, be it spouse or family or friends. While some may have experienced anticipatory grief, which is just fancy talk for a drawn-out losing of their loved one, at the moment of that final rise and fall of the chest all those who remain begin their walk through the actual valley of the shadow. This, too, is so very sacred. And so very complex.
I read an article the other day about a woman who had lost a loved one, and in her grief had in essence closed herself off to the rest of the world. To make a long story short, she’d had friends insist she read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they felt she would be touched by the story. While some might claim that Wild is about the journey of self-discovery, I would contend it is about the one-step-after-the-other through the valley of grief. The woman resisted for the longest time, but she finally broke down and read the book. What she found in those pages was the permission, in her words, to be “unlikable in her grief.” For her, that was a gift beyond measure. I mention this because while there are moments we are privileged to be there when someone dies, the more common experience is being in the lives of others after that someone dies. And allowing people to grieve in their own possibly unlikable way and at their own possibly untimely pace takes great courage. Oh, we throw around the phrase “letting people grieve” in a mindless way sometimes, almost like we toss about the word “closure.” Such words and phrases I often find to be the language of fools. Once our family member or friend continues past what we feel is the appropriate season of grieving, we either withdraw (if we haven’t already) or we recommend counseling or something. Now counseling might be a very good thing, but maybe not. Maybe they simply need the permission to be unlikable in their grief, and for us to have the sturdiness to love them anyway. That’s not necessarily what you asked about, but then again, maybe it is. I don’t know.
Being there when someone dies is a holy thing. Being there for someone as they walk through their grief is equally holy. Actually, it may be a little more.