Forgive me, Dylan Thomas, for I am only borrowing the portion needed to talk about how to enter the space of someone whose departure from life is imminent. If that person chooses to rage, rage against the dying of the light, that is their unequivocal deathright. For all others entering the space of a dying person, it is imperative to do so gently.
Going gently does not mean pussyfooting in or around. If ever there was a time for being real, approaching death is it. What going gently does mean is that we soften our sharp edges, our voices, and our hearts. Consider the room of the dying as a newborn’s nursery. It is in a sense. Be it a hospital room or bedroom at home, it is ideally a space for respite, tranquility, and transition.
To enter the room of the dying requires that we check our baggage at the door. Literally leaving the over-capacity weight or hazardous thinking we carry about death, dying, and the person experiencing it outside of their room. There are only two things to bring for this visit. Love. Light.
Crying and sadness may be part of the visit, but so may be laughter and happy memories. Whatever happens or is said cannot possibly be scripted, but rather than a source of pressure let that be a source of inspiration. Be inspired to reach in, reach back, reach deep, for meaningful connections and silly memories alike. Know that your presence is felt, and that even if the dying is not responding verbally, they may well be hearing every word spoken. Hearing is believed to be the last sense to leave the body, and energetic sensing beyond consciousness is an accepted albeit not yet understood phenomena.
No matter the stage in the death process, do not talk about the dying or their life as if they were not present. Regardless of the drama in your life or theirs, remember – all baggage is left outside of the room. Whatever baggage they brought is theirs to sort through, whether that has been, is being, or will be done is theirs and theirs alone to tend to. If you have conflict related things that you must speak to, do so with grace and reverence. If not for the person, then for the circumstance of the moment you find yourselves in.
This requires preparation. Thinking about what we are about to face, we can use the steps leading to entry as an opportunity to slow down our movements and deepen our breath. Mr. Thomas, again, no disrespect. Your wife’s drunken rage against others as you went further into the dark night was your business and hers. But what was that really about? A true desire to kill someone she held responsible for events leading to death or inability to skillfully cope with the prospect of death itself? Literary digression aside, if thoughts about death are anxiety provoking, clearly that is not going to be worked out in the presence of someone else’s dying.
The when and how of dealing with feelings about our own death and dying must be done at a time and in a way other than at the death bed of another. Of course being in the presence of death and dying is excellent fodder for thinking about and processing the feelings associated with the certainty of our own death. But it must be worked out on our own time, not on the time of dying person that we are visiting.
This is as much true for medical, palliative, and personal care staff as it is for friends and family. Reacting with fear, anxiety, and concern to the sounds, sights, and smells that are a natural part of the body’s death process is not helpful or supportive to the person whose body is going through those changes. These changes are beyond counter-intuitive, they go against the grain of everything we know and practice for the promotion and preservation of health. While hygiene protocol and sanitization may prevent contagion from external sources, co-morbid toxicity may also be a natural part of a body’s death process and no amount of antiseptic will prevent that.
Do go gently. Use your indoor voice, better yet, allow for some quiet. Be respectful. Even if the dying person seems completely comatose, you are still a guest in their space. If they chose a party atmosphere for their send off, uphold their wishes but in such a way that also supports what is happening in the moment. Put the game on, have wings and beer, lay their favorite jersey with them, let them die as they chose, whatever that may be is likely to be as they lived.
What was not, is not, and that is never more true than in the final time leading to death. Things not done, places not visited, words not said, love not shared, raging against what was not or is not when life departure is imminent can not change that. Only one thing can. Thinking and then doing something about all of those things before your life gets to that point. And since there is no guarantee of an announcement regarding your life departure, why not start now?
With gratitude for the eloquence and inspiration of Dylan Thomas, whose death anniversary is on November 9.