My wife died almost 2 weeks ago, which is why I haven’t written an entry in a while.
Dealing with her long term illness, and ultimately the death of my spouse has bestowed upon me distilled life experience. It has been quite an honor to go through this with her, as I learned so much about life and about myself. But if I had to sum up everything I learned about death, it would be the same advice I’d give about anything else: “Be Present.”
To be present is to fully face what you’re dealing with, to not shy away from it, to not try to lay blame elsewhere, to not regret, or wish, or even hope, but instead to accept what is, to look deeply at it so as to learn what it is and why it might be there.
As the one who is dying, being present is to not “fight” death, but to enjoy life. My wife’s decline was somewhat slow, and her ability to do things left her over some weeks. With each loss of something that was once part of life (walking outside, eating, standing, drinking, etc.) each of the remaining abilities became more precious. As her ability to drink lessened, I remember how each sip of juice or water was ecstasy to her. Perhaps it’s subtle, but she never cursed the fact that she couldn’t drink much anymore, but instead she enjoyed the few sips she could drink. Or when she couldn’t stand on her own anymore, she was filled with pleasure when I would hold her in a standing position. Again, not “I wish I could stand,” but instead, “I’m glad I can be held up.” Instead of regrets for what we should have done differently in our marriage, we looked forward and missed the time we’d not be together.
As the caregiver of a dying person, being present meant to not have anger at death, but to do what I could to assist the life that was left. Hospice facilitated her caregiving at home (which was a blessing!) and their focus is on comfort and reduction of unwanted symptoms. This is being present. They are not trying to cure the disease, but just to remove the pain. Not fighting, but facilitating.
After her death, we did a three day vigil. Friends came to sit with her body. Some read, some meditated, some prayed, everyone said goodbye in his or her own way. It was not a “celebration of life”, which will come at the funeral, but instead it was an acknowledgment of the transformation she underwent, the wishing of “bon voyage,” the celebration of her continuation in other ways. And it was a time to ponder one’s own impending death, and thus how you live your life. It really underscored for me how important it is to live a worthwhile life. I highly recommend having an after-death vigil; it was one of the most moving and spiritually fulfilling events I’ve experienced.
One effect of having the vigil for three days was that by the end, her body had started to change. It was dehydrating, and while not gross, you could very clearly see it was just a shell. A chrysalis. Everyone who visited got to witness, first hand, that the body isnâ€™t the person, but just a place for the person to reside for a time.