Whenever I visit a patient in the hospital or check on staff I simply ask, “What kind of a day is it for you today?” When you repeatedly have the privilege and the intense challenge of witnessing and accompanying dying people and their loved ones, you become aware of the many stories and perspectives in the room. There is the obvious question- how comfortable is the dying person moment by moment, and how can we bring more comfort to them wherever possible? Who else is in the space at the bedside- Spouses, children, caregivers? Each of these people is in and out of the intense grief of the moment- sometimes clinging to denial that this is really happening even after the last breath is drawn, pleading for revival. Sometimes a mother is holding her children in her arms, telling them “It will be ok, we will be ok,” over and over again, trying to convince them and herself at the same time as her husband wanes before them. Sometimes the nurses going in and out of the room over hours of the death vigil; assessing, medicating, swabbing mouths to bring moisture; adjusting pillows and blankets; checking on families; bringing water, encouraging them to take breaks and to eat, waiting for signs of whatever steps are next, listening to each person in the room tell their memories or fight over senseless things, laugh about old stories, wail in breathless agony, run down the hall and vomit before they get to the bathroom, stand as far in the corner as possible and talk to no one- sees and hears it all, and wonders how many more times he or she can do this. How many more rooms like that will they have to stand in? How many more boxes of cheap hospital issued sandpaper tissues will they hand to families, wishing they could offer So Much More?
People in healthcare who are around death, aging, vulnerability, and all the parts of human life our Western culture, avoids, medicates, distracts from, puts make up and dye’s on, desperately tries to cover and avoid in every way possible suffer a loss of reality. They suffer a certain isolation from others who do not see death and suffering every day all day. They suffer with the questions of their loved ones and their own mortality- the fragility of life itself. Some of them spend their lives trying to fight death, prolong life, “fix” bodies, and extend or add to what many are taught think is most important and valuable- youth, beauty, mobility, ability to acquire and enjoy material goods. Yet most of the people who are in the bed, or anticipating being in the last bed in which they will ever lay, are missing the simple things like- one more night at home on the couch watching a movie with their loved ones; being out in their gardens; going fishing; being able to run their own errands; use the bathroom on their own; eat and drink what they want when they want; move their bodies freely and without pain or additional equipment or the help of others.
Those who live with chronic disease know these desires long before their death beds. They look at life very differently. For some, limitations become invitations to find joy in other ways. For others, they become part of a long slow death, hastened and poisoned by anger and fear. Spirits can live when bodies are dying; and spirits can die when bodies are still living.
For people who see the full range of this emotional, physical and spiritual roller coaster daily, what happens? How are they different? How can others who would like to believe it is all unlikely, unnatural, unreal, avoidable, only for others, or just never going to happen to them learn from those suffering their worst nightmares and those working with them daily?
We can each spend our time fearing and avoiding that which frightens us about aging and death, or we can love into it by being present with each other’s challenges and struggles, just as much as we are present for those rare days we wish could go on forever, that we remember (or have remembered for us) in the days which become our last. Even simply witnessing someone else just as they are, and holding a space for all that came before that person sitting in front of you, who you cannot seem to reach in a recognizable way, honors them. Expression happens in ways we cannot see. Renewing how we measure value in life is important. That unresponsive person who you may watch and deeply fear becoming- representing what society tells us is waste and humiliation, and burdensome, just may become a spiritual teacher to you the moment you begin to wonder about your own mortality and quality of life. Even in a state we might consider distant and unreachable, that person has a part to play. Sometimes in seeing what we do not wish to see- we honor the person living it, and we sweeten all that is here and now and available.
There is much that will come to you that you will wish to stop, avoid, fix, skip over, or erase. But until it is your time to experience such things, remember that today is not that day. Find that which is still possible, joyful, comforting, connecting, life-giving and do as much of it as you can. It is not that day until it is… Gratitude and awareness are life-giving in a society which operates so often out of a sense of fear and scarcity. Listen to those who have lived through the unimaginable. Look with wonder at the fungus growing out of dead trees and animals, which then becomes food and medicine for other beings. There is value and life even in suffering and death. Spend time with people and in places that remind you that you are alive! Learn from people in cultures for whom aging is an honor, and the elderly are as loved and fawned over as children, even as some of them become more and more like children in time.
Perhaps the people you watch and wonder about in emergencies or at their own deathbeds are wishing to have just one more day – like the one you could be having right now. You running yourself ragged on the hamster wheel of anxiety, and worrying over that which you cannot predict, control, or even understand fully, gives neither you nor them more time or quality of life; it only robs you and the world of the energy of joy and comfort. So live in the moment you are in, and try to trust that when you find yourself in one of those times and places in life you wish to avoid, that you will have what you need when you need it, even if it doesn’t look like what you expect. Keep watch over all that is, letting it balance itself in your life in the strange and unpredictable timing that we do not really get to understand on this side of things. Love into what is, and then it will be blessed in ways unimaginable.
What kind of day is for you today?