The call came at 10:15 on a Sunday morning. It was Lana, the hospice nurse, calling to let me know that 70-year-old Bessie was actively dying in our in-patient hospice care facility.
“She has no family,” Lana said to me. “We’re starting a Volunteer Vigil for her. Can you come sit with her for a while today?”
I had registered to participate in a three-hour workshop later that afternoon. I sat still for a while and asked my heart what I should do, as I usually did when faced with a decision. From the unequivocal “yes” resonating from my sacred center, I knew exactly what I needed to do.
A half-hour later, I walked into Bessie’s room.
“We just gave her a bath,” said Lana. “Her breathing pattern is becoming erratic. Here’s the button you need to push if you notice anything unusual or alarming.” Lana slipped out of the room.
Bessie lay on her side, her salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed. Her facial skin was still firm at seventy years old. But the figure in the thin blue cotton gown was breathing in an arrythmic manner, an indicator that the end was nearing.
I took Bessie’s hand in mine. Dry, papery, but still warm with life blood pulsing through it. I told her she was loved and cared for. I whispered to her about God and the angels, the love and light that awaited her on the other side. I reminded her that she was only going home, a place that was familiar, but forgotten. A home she’d recognize the instant she stepped into the realm.
Over the next couple of hours, I continued to talk to Bessie. I read prayers. I sang all the songs I knew. I held and stroked her hand.
Her breathing altered. She’d drag in one long breath. Then, silence for about eight seconds. She’d draw in her next breath. As she lay there completely unresponsive, I witnessed how hard her body was working to release her spirit. Death, just like birth, is hard work.
To me, everything about this experience felt sacred. The blessing was truly mine in being called to assist Bessie’s soul transition from one world to another.
As human beings, we have a tendency to label and package our experiences as “pleasurable” or “painful.” Death clearly falls in the latter category, so we do everything we can to avoid it. The more we fear death, the farther we try to run from it. And yet, all that is born must die. That includes you and me.
What would it take for us to inch one step closer to what we must inevitably face?
Ask questions. Talk to a hospice volunteer, nurse or chaplain. Visit someone in a nursing home.
I wrote “Understanding Death: 10 Ways to Inner Peace for the Grieving” for just this reason: to explore the top 10 questions we ask when we lose a loved one. Buy a copy and start a conversation. It’s the most important conversation you’ll ever have.