September 8, 2017

Life-Changing Life Lessons from Two Dying Men.

This past year, I’ve been with two loved ones at the time of their passing, which was a bittersweet honor for me.

The first was that of my beloved father-in-law at the age of 91, after his lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. More recently, I was in the room when my dear friend Thomas Steinbeck (son of esteemed writer John Steinbeck) passed away at the age of 72 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In both cases, I was the only person present with any sort of medical background, and although I hadn’t practiced nursing in more than 30 years, I felt comfortable taking control during this emotional time for all the loved ones involved.

Death can be scary, even for those who’ve been exposed to it many times

Most often, we don’t know when a loved one will pass; but at other times, we will have a sense that time is running out. Regardless of the situation, it’s still a painful and transformative time for us when a loved one departs from the physical realm.

In both of my recent experiences, I did know that time was running out, so I was able to prepare myself psychologically for the loss. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says that the reason the moment of death is so potent with opportunity is, “because it is then that the fundamental nature of mind, the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light, will naturally manifest, and in a vast and splendid way.” At this moment, we are finally liberated—or at least move on to the bardo (or intermediate state) between living and dying.

While preparing for the eventual loss of a loved one, we wonder if there are certain things we wish to tell them. Perhaps we reflect on their role in our lives and how life will be after they depart. Being by someone’s deathbed might also lend itself to contemplation and musings we may not normally think about at any other time.

Even though I knew these two men were passing, I’ll admit that there was a certain sense of denial about their mortality. They were strong men—war veterans—who’d witnessed and experienced much love and hardship. There were moments when I wanted to thank them for all they’d done for humanity at large, but there were also times (during their more lucid moments) when I yearned to have them answer my deeper philosophical questions. I refrained from asking those questions, which I now understand is because I didn’t want them to think I knew they were dying—even though logically I knew they did.

In fact, Thom told me a few weeks before he passed that he didn’t have much time left. As a Buddhist, he saw death as just another life transition, and the hospice nurse reminded us to give them permission to “let go.”

There are lessons to be learned from all our life experiences, and these recent deaths have reminded me of the importance of mindfulness and to “listen to the messages” that the dying impart on us. Knowing that hearing is the final sense to go, I took the opportunity to tell both of them how much they meant to me and how much I loved them. For that, I am grateful.

When faced with death, there are certain things to remember.

First, the meaning of life becomes very important.

Second, don’t sweat the small things. Focus on the needs of the dying. Be calm, and remind them they are not alone. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal messages. Sometimes, they may be restless; understand that they might not want to be touched.

Third, it’s okay to give the person permission to die. Tell them that everything will be okay. In so doing, it’s amazing how much help we can offer and how much we can learn at the same time.

Remember, life is fleeting and precious. It should be treated as such until the very end.

Here are my Key Lessons from Death:

>> Death is more than a physical event.

>> Death is a time for transformation.

>> Life is precarious.

>> It’s important to be authentic.

>> It’s important to say what comes naturally.

>> It’s important to act compassionately.

>> It’s important to create a calm and loving environment.

>> It’s important to be present.

>> The dying are always in charge.

>> It’s important to send each other off with love.

>> The dying room is a sacred space.


Author: Diana Raab
Image: Paul Morris/Unsplash
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social editor:  Travis May

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May Wagner Oct 27, 2017 4:22pm

"The dying are always in charge." Love that. I am a hospice nurse and so many family members struggle with the dying process and the unknown. Each person's journey is different and we cannot rush it.

Kortne Altinga Sep 26, 2017 3:00am

I was not really having a problem breathing at first. My throat was burning; I thought I had strep throat. I had pain in my neck, and there was swelling around my collar bone. The first doctor I went to said he did not know why there was swelling. He gave me antibiotics and told me that if the swelling was not better to come back in two weeks. I went back in two weeks and he said he did not know what was wrong. Since I do not have insurance, I went to a hospital emergency room, and they said I have COPD.The disease does not improve. My "good days" are far and few these days. My dad and his dad died from this. I am only writing this to inform others that nothing was really working to help my condition.I started on COPD herbal formula i ordered from Health Herbal Clinic,i read reviews from other previous patients who used the herbal formula, my symptoms totally declined over a 5 weeks use of the COPD natural herbal formula. i am now doing very well, my lungs are totally repaired!! Visit there website www. healthherbalclinic. net or email [email protected] healthherbalclinic. net

Mark Steed Sep 11, 2017 5:43pm

My mother died last year. She was diagnosed with cancer, went into the hospital and died 28 days later. It was traumatic. I watched her process what was happening. It was like a slow motion fatal car crash. Our lives are more than our body. It's most of everything we know, it's our story we're giving up. I think it's best to practice giving that up a little each day. It demonstrated to me all kinds of hard truths about what life is and what an "us" is. Samsara is a real thing. The more we get lost in the sticky, worldly, paradigm, the harder it will be to send that to the crematorium. We have the tools to deal with these things now. Mostly we won't though. We will pretend to be immortal and when we get in in the head with mortality it will rock our foundation.

Linda Lewis Sep 9, 2017 4:18pm

Excellent! This article provoked by personal experience and care is so needed in this world w/ its unrealistic bias toward perpetual youth and "beauty"--the outward appearance, which ignores the genuine heart of sadness and joy inside each individual.

Petrus van der Bol Sep 9, 2017 3:50pm

A truly precious article. My beloved husband of 54 years passed in nov 2014 and I am so thankful we walked that last 2 weeks together. He even chose the hymns for his funeral. It is Well with my Soul was the closing one...and in spite of deep, deep grief it is indeed well with my soul...and with his... Sandra van der Bol

Patricia Yager Delagrange Sep 9, 2017 2:29pm

What a beautiful post. Thank you so much.

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Diana Raab

Diana Raab, Ph.D is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, and speaker who advocates the healing and transformative powers of writing. She’s the author of eight books, and her essays and poetry have been widely published. She’s a regular blogger for Psychology Today. Her book, Writing for Bliss: Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life is due to be published in September 2017. Catch up with Diana on her website and Facebook.