- Bob Ginsberg
Sitting With the Dying: Sacred Experience or Obligation?
The notion that being with a dying person can be a sacred experience will seem perplexing to many. In fact, a common perception is that the dying experience is anything but sacred, as what can be sacred about sorrow, grief and loss?
Anyone who has ever sat with a loved one who was nearing physical death can attest to the fact that a myriad of emotions and thoughts take over one’s mind. Are they in pain? What will I do without them? Could I have prevented this? What arrangements do I need to make? The list goes on and on, and most of our thoughts often center on our own perspective as opposed to the thoughts and experiences of the dying person. We may try to get them to eat something, when food nourishment is no longer of value or interest. We often respond to their seemingly confused verbalizations by administering more pain medication. We talk to them about physical things, when the material world now seems silly to them. We encourage them to fight and “hang on” at all costs, when shedding the body is their focus.
When the end of physical life is imminent, many who spiritually sit with the dying sense a tangible change in the atmosphere and energy. Time stands still as a surreal experience takes hold while witnessing the transition and birthing into a new realm. Some report seeing changes in light and unexplained movement of objects, but most experience what they simply describe as stillness or an inner knowing that a sacred rite of passage is taking place. Having been in both situations I noticed the similarities in the experiences of the birth of my child and the death of loved ones. One is a birth into the physical world, and one is the birthing into the non-physical world, but both represent the majesty of a force and design that can only be described as a miracle.
So what can we do to better to support our transitioning loved ones? We can try to set our conscious mind aside and just be in the moment. Trying to experience things from their perspective may seem like an insurmountable task under the circumstances, but take notice of their breathing, eye movements, gestures and utterances. Even among those who are no longer communicative and remain unconscious, it is very likely that they can hear your voice when you speak to them. Talk about the love that you and others have for them. Reminisce about the events in their life that were so memorable. If they show signs of being aware of others in the room that you cannot see, acknowledge the experience and ask them who they see and how it makes them feel. When they have periods of agitation near the end, as so often happens, simply be aware that is part of process.
Most of all, it is important to let them know that when the dying process begins it is OK for them to let go. There is no reason to suffer when it is time for our consciousness or soul to leave. Reassure them that the place they are going is wonderful, pain free, and they will reunite with loved ones who have gone before them.
I understand that there are many people, myself included, who lost loved ones suddenly. No time to sit with them at the end. No time to say good-bye. No time to tell them how much we love them. If we consider this as a misfortune, and it certainly is in physical terms, then we missed a much needed opportunity. Once we step back and try to look at the circumstances from their perspective, we can find some comfort. They know all of the things that we question. They know that they still exist and remain part of our lives. They know that we will see them again. Not being with them at the end is unfortunate to us, but not to them.
For those who are privileged to be with a loved one as they straddle two worlds before passing over, remember that you are witnessing part of an exquisite design.