Now I Lay Me Down: Reflections of a Hospice Caregiver
Nov 03, 2015 06:16PM
● By Juliette Jones
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
–18th century children’s bedtime prayer
Embedded in this little children’s verse, known to many of us by heart, is a secret formula to dispel the fear of physical death and put the conscious mind at ease―even into a state of pleasure. How many of us can follow the secret, narrow passage in consciousness implied in this simple verse, as we contemplate death and dying?
Or, are we taken-up upon the super highway of the material worldview, fed by the messages of an ego-based culture, and suffering from a cataclysmic disidentification with the natural messages of spirit? We live in a mainstream culture that refutes anything which borders on the unknown and where many fear even the idea of death, let alone talk about it or be around its imminence.
The abiding archetype of death in the modern Western world is almost exclusively the Grim Reaper, and it has a stranglehold on our ego-based concept of reality―so much so, that it is akin to heresy to suggest that death could be a pleasurable release or a euphoric experience. Mainstream Western culture sees death as the enemy, and while the Grim Reaper has his place, it should not be to the exclusion of the Angel of Light. Death has more than one face. Just as there seem to be fortuitous and difficult birth, or fortuitous and difficult life; so it is with death and dying. Since many adults have never even seen an actual human death, the experience remains unknown, hidden from view and made to seem threatening by the prospect of its inevitability.
The material-minded have the most difficulty seeing a spiritual or energetic aspect around physical death―even if they have witnessed it―because they have lost the connection to their inner eyes and ears. The spirit cannot enter when the door is closed. To even suggest to such a person that people need not fear death is normally met with sheer indignation in the medical model. I once heard a medical doctor say it was impossible not to fear death.
When I suggested to her that, in twenty years of bedside experience, I had encountered many people who approached death with minimal fear, and was present for several euphoric, blissful deaths, she scorned me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” was her response. Ram Dass made an interesting point when he said, “Doctors are higher in anxiety about death than the general population.”
Every hospice fieldworker has heard the following questions many times: “How do you do what you do? How do you work with the dying every day” During my tenure with hospice, I frequently asked colleagues about their reasons for entering the field of death and dying and discovered that most of them had experienced the death of a loved one which effected them deeply. Subsequently, they found both purpose, and self-healing in assisting those experiencing their final days on earth.
On the surface, working with the dying appears to be a noble effort and, if properly undertaken, there is a grace to this work―as long as there is emotional maturity and spiritual readiness to undertake the task. Care must be taken not to project one’s own fears or process one’s own pain through attachment to another’s. It is a great privilege and unparalleled learning experience to work on one’s own self-realization through being with someone who is conscious of their own impending death. In this, each fellow traveler also becomes a teacher.
Experienced hospice field workers know that one of the most powerful ways to eliminate a fear of death is by spending time with the dying. In this work, one gains an opportunity for deeper understanding of many facets. For example, one particular hospice nurse whom I worked alongside for many years is from Haiti. When she began training, I could see she possessed talent for the work.
Soon after the completion of her field training period, she confided in me, “Before I began working here, I used to suffer because of the prejudice that has touched my life. I just couldn’t seem to get over the feelings that bothered me. After three months on this job, these feelings have eased and dropped away. You begin to see how to let go of things―to understand what is real and important.”
We once encountered a patient, diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, who had an extreme fear of dying. She was a likable person with a lovely family, and everyone wanted to support her but didn’t know how to help. Because of the nature of her illness, she had been placed in a full-care facility converted from what had once been a large, private home. Each patient had his or her own room and shared a kitchen, living room and large lanai, in addition to common areas where patients and families could get together in the comfort of a home-like setting. Staff was present around the clock to care for patients and cook meals.
Generally, this facility took relatively short-term patients; in fact, the staff affectionately referred to the place as “God’s Waiting Room.” However, this particular patient, whom I will call Dolora, was an exception to this policy due to political and placement issues. Though Dolora had never been consciously spiritual or religious, she requested a consultation, and this turned into two visits per week.
She was a pleasant person to visit, and she appreciated emotional and spiritual support, but she could simply not let go of her deep fears which continued to be of concern for both family and staff. In fact, this fear was so greatly exacerbated by the frequent deaths of other short-term patients that her family contemplated removing Dolora from the facility, but the place had such a supportive environment, they ultimately decided against it.
As fate would have it, there was another patient in the living facility, whom I will call Charlie, who had resided there for some time as well. Charlie and Dolora became friends, often sitting on the lanai to chat and eat lunch together. It was really a poignant thing―the gift of a stranger becoming a real friend at the very sunset of life. Everyone saw the special bond that had been created, and they seemed to help one another profoundly.
Then, one morning, I received a call that Charlie had died. Dolora was at his bedside when he passed during the night and has since retired to her room. The staff wanted me to visit her immediately, fearing that Charlie’s death would affect her adversely. I knocked softly on her door, almost hoping that she would be resting, but she was wide awake and let me in. Our subsequent conversation went like this:
“I came over because I heard that Charlie died. The staff said you were with him,” I began. “Yes, I’m glad you came because I wanted to talk to you about it,” she responded with exceeding calm. “I’d like to listen,” I continued. “I’m not afraid of death anymore―not at all. I wanted to talk to you because I know you’re going to understand this. I stood next to him and saw his face. There was a light around him, and I could feel a great luminous peace. Somehow, I think he was letting me feel his peace. When he left, it was beautiful, beyond what I can put into words,” was her peaceful explanation.
We sat in silence, and I waited a long time before I replied. This was a moment of stunning realization. “I do understand, Dolora. I understand about these numinous final gifts. Charlie gave you a gift.” From this experience, Dolora finally recognized that transformation becomes possible when an awareness occurs which could not manifest without truly witnessing the edge of physical life.
From that time on, Dolora was completely at peace with death. It was remarkable what a force she became befriending patients and staff, and the effect she had on her family. This, in itself, was deserving of a special story, so I recorded the events and presented it to her and her family. They appreciated that gesture, and I felt honored to give her a memento commemorating what she had accomplished. Dolora lay down to sleep one night and didn’t return to her earthly home the next morning. She left entirely at peace.
Fear has a tendency to disappear once the miraculous side of dying is witnessed. There are many varieties of extraordinary experience that happen around the death bed. As people reach the shores of heaven, they often accomplish meaningful life reviews. Stunning synchronicities occur, as well as lucid dreams and full blown conscious visions. Communication with loved ones on the other side is also common.
“One who sees the way in the morning can gladly die in the evening.”
The impact of a full-blown transpersonal experience does not fade with, and often completely heals, the fear of death. There comes a point in time when it is possible to realize―not believe but become consciously aware― there is an aspect of the self which does not die. Once realized, whether early or late in life, understanding of who we are and may become changes completely.