“Being” with the dying

In Last Acts of Kindness: Lessons for the Living from the Bedsides of the Dying, Judith Redwing Keyssar writes: “People tend to do what makes them feel comfortable when a loved one is dying. In an attempt to control their emotions, some make food, some drink, others make plans and others take long walks. There are as many ways to grieve as there are humans grieving.”

Ponder the truths in this paragraph. And reflect upon a time when you were that person whose loved one was dying. What did you do? How did you deal with your roller-coaster emotions? Did you sit with that pain? Did you lose yourself in “doing?” Or did you run and hide?

The author writes, “Once the dying process begins, death will occur. We cannot stop the process once it starts. We cannot change the course of life or death. In our culture, we are so accustomed to “doing things” and yet what is required at the bedside of the dying is simply “being.” This establishes a kind of calm that can only be understood once experienced. In our busy world, where there is always something else to do, we must take the advice of Sylvia Boorstein (1996), a Vipassana meditation teacher and writer, who recommends to us in the title of one of her books, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

In my personal experience with hospice, I have often found this to be true. The hustle and bustle of the hospital room is gone. So are the hissing, beeping machines. There are people–nurses and aides, a chaplain, a volunteer–whose job it is to keep the patient comfortable. That could mean any number of things. An extra dose of morphine. A volunteer gently massaging lotion into the patient’s hands. A friend or family member wheeling the patient’s bed into a pool of sunlight or positioning it so he can witness the blooms of spring. Someone crooning his favorite tune as he dozes off.

When someone is dying, everyone has to wait. It takes time. All of us have a different timetable. Some wait mere hours. Some drag on for days, others, weeks. It is a lesson in patience. And it is a time when “being” edges ahead of “doing”, and just being present at the patient’s bedside is seen as the ultimate act of service.

The next time you’re facing a loss, be mindful of this fact. Give all of yourself to the person. Know that it will be sensed and appreciated.

Click here to read my book “Understanding Death: 10 Ways to Inner Peace for the Grieving.”

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