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With One Foot in Each World
by Barbara Neighbors Deal
At age ninety-nine, Barb had lived a full and rich life, on her own terms, experiencing and exploring everything she yearned to. Her spiritual practice led her to inward depths of trust in the Cosmos and cooperation with Principle, resulting in a life of blessing and being blessed. Her keen curiosity led her to travel worldwide, and explore many cultures and traditions. She was an empathic listener, and cultivated many deep friendships.
Bob and I were blessed to meet her almost 40 years ago. Over the years we spent holidays together, and she accompanied us on many wonderful travel adventures. Some family comes to us by blood, others by choice. We and Barb chose each other as family. Of her two surviving nieces in the San Diego area, Barb said, “I got them by blood, but I’d have chosen them if I hadn’t!”
At ninety-two, Barb was diagnosed with macular degeneration, and needed to give up driving and her home. We were just moving to Crescent City to help my parents through their last years’ medical challenges. The phone rang one day and it was Barb, saying, “Wither thou goest, I will go….. if you’ll have me!” So seven years ago, she packed up lock, stock and antiques, and moved to assisted living, near us and my folks.
Barb had four years of good health, and enjoyed coming to know the Pacific Northwest, particularly the redwoods and the wild Pacific with sculpted sea stacks decorating each vista.
Congestive heart failure gradually slowed her down and made her increasingly uncomfortable. About five months ago, aspiration pneumonia added to her discomfort. She began to have more bad days than good, and finally was so miserable that she spent most days in bed. It was then we had great discussions about life and death, about knowing how to live, but not knowing how to die. She was very clear that she was not afraid of death, and did not want to be a victim, but wanted to have choices about how the end of her life unfolded.
We spoke at length with her internist, and she instructed him quite clearly, that when she decided she’d had enough of the struggle and feeling miserable, she wanted no more medical intervention, including her meds, and wanted to be kept comfortable during the dying process. She did not want to be hospitalized, but wanted to die in her own bed. He agreed.
Barb’s discomfort increased significantly the week of December 6-12. We saw her often that week, and spoke several times daily on the phone. She was having trouble breathing, pain in her chest, constant nausea and exhaustion. We visited her on Sunday, 12/13, and she said, “I’ve had enough.” I suggested we get her in to see her internist Monday, just to see if he could think of anything else to try.
She had a very rough night Sunday, and on Monday in the wee hours announced to the facility staff that she would no longer take her meds. She had indeed had enough.
Staff called me, and by the time I got down the mountain, Barb was agitated, anxious, couldn’t get comfortable. By this time her doctor had ordered Ativan (bless whomever invented it!) and codeine/Tylenol for pain. The Ativan quickly calmed the agitation, and she reported no pain, just difficulty breathing. Oxygen helped. She had Ativan and codeine prescribed every two hours, but in reality it was given as needed, per her request.
We were both awake all Monday night. I was intensely aware that my job with her in the last days was that of midwife -- she was the one in labor, leaving the womb of this world and pushing out into whatever comes next. I was to keep her as comfortable and protected as possible. To encourage her. To witness the miracle of death, which is as great as the miracle of birth.
It was important to me that she know that she was not alone, and that I had no fear about what was happening in her. I think one who is dying picks up on the emotions and intentions of those who are with them. In some way it seemed important to hold deep peace, serenity, relinquishment for her and with her.
On Tuesday she drifted in and out of sleep. From time to time, facility staff members stopped by to hold her hand, tell her they loved her, wipe her face with a warm washcloth, and say goodbye. For each person Barb rallied, gathered herself together enough to acknowledge them by name, thank them, and tell them she loved them. As the day wore on, I saw it was becoming more and more of a struggle, and was distracting her from what she wanted to be about. I suggested to the staff administrator that it was fine for staff to come quietly into her room, and sit in silence or prayer, to be present…..and let Barb focus on her task.
Tuesday night we both dozed some and were awake some. She seemed to be visiting other times in her life, at one point quietly conjugating French verbs, something she hadn’t studied since college. At another moment she was quite concerned about trees growing too close together, and instructed me, quite adamantly, to cut down the offending trees. I assured her I’d take care of it. She reminded me to get a permit first. J Generalizing her concern, I said, “Barb, you’ve done a wonderful job. You’ve left everything in perfect order. It is all okay. You can rest.”
On Wednesday, while the administrator and another staff member were sitting with me by her bed, Barb said, with eyes wide open and wonder in her voice, “My brother is here!” Barb’s brother, Ralph, had died decades ago in a car accident.
Ralph was the father of Barb’s nieces, Judy and Laurie.
A few minutes later there was a loud crashing sound in Barb’s living room. We who were sitting with her jumped, and one went into the living room to see if there was an intruder. She came back into the room with a framed photo of Laurie in her hands. The photo had been on the middle of a round table, surrounded by other framed photos. Inexplicably, that one photo had crashed to the floor; all the others were in their usual places.
The administrator said, “I wonder if Ralph is confirming that he’s here!”
In late morning Barb fell into a very sound sleep, perhaps a light coma. She could no longer swallow pills or water, but Ativan under her tongue kept her comfortable. I moistened her lips and mouth with water, using a sponge on a long stick. Tuesday and Wednesday morning she could bite the sponge and suck a teaspoon or so of water at a time. By noon on Wednesday, she no longer could manage it, and was unresponsive to the sponge.
About mid-afternoon Wednesday, she suddenly became alert. She stared into the upper left corner of her bedroom, just where the walls met the ceiling. She said, in a clear voice, “It’s beautiful! It’s BEAUTIFUL!!!!” I softly asked, “What are you seeing?”
“Beautiful! Look at the yellow! The most beautiful yellow! Yellow, shimmering, living light!” (Pause)
“You always said it gets better. It gets better and better!” (Longer pause)
“It is…..there is…..(unintelligible)…. There is HOME! Ooooooooh, its beautiful!......”
“I see a couple…. Some snow stars. It is home. And it’s beautiful!”
I said, softly, “You’re almost there, Barb.”
She said, voice stronger, “Yes! They’re expecting me! They’re actually EXPECTING me!” She laughed out loud, her old, strong, musical laugh.
“Oh my God. There’s Mama! ……. Winkey (?) ….. All of them are there!!! There’s my (unintelligible).”
I said, “Barb, they’re here to help you, whenever you are ready.”
Eyes wide open, focused on the corner ceiling, “How wonderful! They’re waiting for me!
There’s Father, too!”
Laughing aloud in delight: “So beautiful! Bright, bright. Color! Look at that yellow! Vibrating!”
She slipped into shallow, fast, irregular breathing (she wasn’t in pain) and was quiet, eyes still gazing to the ceiling corner.
About twenty minutes later, she looked directly into my eyes, and said, quite emphatically “YOU’RE PERFECT!” I was so startled that I started to laugh, but something in her gaze caught me. My inner translation was that it was Barb-speak for “Thank you for making sure I could die in my own bed, on my own terms. This is perfect.”
But as I've dwelled with it, I suspect she may have been reporting back from the next realm -- something that we forget all too often. That ultimately, beyond the limits of the body and mind, I AM perfect, and that's how she saw me from that realm.
And of course, the truth is, in our essence, we're all perfect. And such a to-do we make when we forget that about ourselves and about those in our lives.
She slipped back into slower and more shallow breathing, with some pauses between breaths. A half hour later, with one eye open, gazing at her shimmering yellow place, she whispered, “Wonderful! Wonderful! Mother!”
Her breathing further slowed, stopped, started after a longer pause. I put my hand over her heart. She took one last breath, exhaled. Her heart slowed and slowed, beat one last time, and stopped.
by Peg Lorenz
The family had been sitting vigil by Sara’s bedside for days, watching her breathing change, watching her slip away. A 54 year old wife, daughter, sister, and mother of 2, had been stricken with a recurrence of cancer. They were stunned, and grief-stricken. Sara had expressed that she wanted her body to stay at home, to stay peaceful and untouched. They had no idea how to comply with her wishes, until the Hospice nurse referred them to me. Unsure of when the actual moment of her death would occur they called me to talk over the plans for her care after death. Ten minutes after I arrived for our planning meeting, her 92 year old mother came into the kitchen and said “She’s gone”.
With dusk descending time slowed down. The only sound was the quiet sobbing of her teenage daughter. The room darkened. After awhile I gently suggested various tasks which the family eagerly embraced. Replacing the medical items with flowers and candles, covering her with silk and a beautiful lace shroud, cooling the room down with an air conditioner and placing frozen gel packs under her body.
Throughout the evening while concrete plans took shape in the kitchen about how to move forward with arrangements, each family member seemed to gravitate to her side. Talking to her, praying, weeping. I often found myself being pulled to a quiet corner as sisters, husband, mother shared their stories of her. Her daughter selected music to play gently and friends stopped by to offer support. A sense of peace spread in the room.
With my guidance and support one of the sisters called a funeral home to schedule the delivery of a cardboard cremation box and arrange for Sara to be transported to a crematory. The night settled in.
When I returned the next morning her husband told me he had come to her bedside over and over throughout the night, to be with her alone one last time, to speak those private words, to pray in the deep silence. It meant so much to him to be able to do this.
As relatives and friends gathered that morning, I encouraged everyone to participate in decorating the cremation box. It was a beautiful fall day, they went outside to paint pictures, place photos, and write messages on the sides and top of the box. Every word, every image, unique and heartfelt, they poured out their love for this amazing wife and mother, sister and friend.
We brought the container inside and six of us carefully picked her up and gently laid her in her final resting place. Her husband and daughter gathered flowers and leaves from her favorite tree and we all placed them over her. The group then gathered around her, read poetry and spoke their final goodbyes. We held hands in a circle around Sara for one last quiet moment and then the cover was placed over her. The funeral home came some time later and she was carried out to the vehicle by her husband and friends.
Twenty-two unforgettable hours. The family had no idea how this time after death would unfold. The beauty of the space, the dignity with which their loved one was treated, the sacred feeling that enveloped the whole house, all was beyond their imagining. Having the precious time to care so lovingly for her body, to put her to rest in a container made unique and beautiful with their photos and art. Twenty-two hours that this family had to be in her presence, to connect with her spirit and to hold each other in the privacy of their home. It was a parting gift she gave them, and the beginning of their healing process. I felt honored and blessed to have been a part of it.
Peaceful Passage At Home Groton, MA 01450 978-448-9458
A Gentle Farewell
by Rosemarie Belcher
Well, it's all over! And practically perfect. Thank you so much to Beth Knox and to all the Crossings friends. Doing the home funeral was so very right. Let me share it all with you while it is fresh in my mind.
Mother had been ailing for a long time. I started to grieve when she didn't recognize me over a year ago, so I was not overwhelmed when she actually died. We had gone on vacation, leaving her in the capable hands of caregivers and Hospice. I asked her to wait till her 99th birthday (July 31) and she said she would try.
While we were away I had a phone call from one of the caregivers suggesting we come home early, so we set out on Wednesday morning from the Thousand Islands in NY to home in Charlotte, NC. We arrived about 5 pm on Thursday (July 23.) She looked as if she was hanging on by a thread - heavy, gurgly breathing, unresponsive. I sat with her and told her I was back and read to her from the book of psalms. Her nurse turned her on her side, which eased her breathing. My Dad (age 98) lay down next to her and rubbed noses. She smiled at him and took one more breath before she died. What a beautiful way to go!
We all sat with her for a little while and said a few prayers. My Dad cried a lot. The Hospice nurse was called to pronounce the death. We waited quite a while. She did her examination, and asked which funeral home was coming to get the body. I said none, and explained the home funeral concept, and she offered to help wash the body.
Then I went home (about a minute away) to get the kit I had put together after the Crossings workshop. When I returned not even 5 minutes later, the nurse and the aide had already washed her! I was sorry, as I had not had a chance to use my beautiful ceramic bowl, or the essential oils, or even say a prayer over her. That part of it was disappointing. I guess the nurses who wash patients all the time are just too efficient! They wanted to spare me, so I missed out on part of the experience.
Anyway, I helped dress her and put on a little make up -- she looked beautiful. For 99 years old she looked wrinkle free, peaceful, and with a hint of a smile.
We used the Techni-ice dry ice that someone on this listserv recommended recently. It really did not stay frozen for very long, so we went to the grocery store and bought dry ice. We didn't find any that came in pellets - that would have been great. My husband had a chance to get his frustrations vented by beating up on the huge chunks of dry ice! Some went in the pillow, some (in a pillow case) under her chest, some under her middle, a small bag on her abdomen, and another between her legs.
We had flowers in the room and that was the only smell. Later I added a bowl with lavender oil and flowers, and I kept a diffuser going all the time. My granddaughter has quite a collection of essential oils, so she got to use those. Everything remained pleasant.
That first night I sat with her and read and prayed. I dozed in the chair by her bed. That did not give me enough rest to do all the things I needed to do the next day. But I felt her spirit had not really left yet. The two following nights I put a cot in her room and slept there. The third night I awoke with a start at 2 am feeling cold, and with the conviction that she was really gone from that place and that body. Then I felt OK to go home and sleep.
My daughter plays the harp, and sat with her as much as she could. Friends dropped by and sat for a while. My Dad was in her room almost all the time, talking to her, crying, dozing, or just sitting quietly. It was so healing for him to have that time with her. I can't imagine what a mess he would have been if we had allowed a funeral home to come and get her as soon as she died.
We went to the National Cremation Society, where my parents had both prepaid years ago. We had already picked up a cardboard coffin, and the grandchildren decorated it with drawings of things important to my mom. Since this was Friday, we had to wait until Monday for the cremation. We had a little confusion and tension over the death certificate, which had to be signed by the hospice doctor by the end of the day Friday for us to be sure of an appointment for her on Monday. The National Cremation Society faxed it to Hospice, and we never heard by the end of the day whether or not they had received it back. All this meant we were held up putting the plans in the obituary page in the newspaper. By the time I decided to just put it in anyway, they were closed for the day also, and I had to wait and put it in the Sunday paper.
Our daughters went and bought the flowers, which were all over the house, and a memory book in which we invited friends to write a favorite memory of my mom. I also invited far away friend to send me their favorite memory of her, which will make a nice keepsake, I think. Neighbors brought food - I think we'll be eating it till Christmas!
People were a bit surprised to learn that her body was in the bedroom, and some did not want to see it. Those who gave an opinion were overwhelmingly thrilled with the idea, and wondered why they hadn't thought of it.
Meanwhile, our parish priest came by and offered to do a wake service at the house and a Funeral Mass after the cremation. This was surprising, as my mother was not Catholic, but we are, so I was pleased. My dad - who has been a fallen-away Catholic since 1945, decided to come back into the Church, which was quite a thrill. I am sure it will be a comfort to him.
People came and went all weekend. It was nice, because we got to sit and visit with people one or two at a time instead of the usual scene at a funeral home where it's a receiving line. Some stayed a few minutes, some stayed a few hours.
By Sunday evening, when the wake service was being held, she was not looking as pretty as right after death. Her eyes had sunken in, her cheeks looked hollow, and her color was not as good. It was not gross, or anything - just a hint of the decomposition that was happening. We turned out the lights and had a few candles lit to hide anything that might be disquieting. Our daughter and son-in-law, musicians, played as we sang some of Mom's favorite hymns and had a nice service. It gave my Dad great comfort.
After it was over, her body was quite frozen (maybe we overdid the dry ice?) I was a little concerned about moving her into the coffin ready for the morning's journey to the crematorium. We waited until morning, and lined the cardboard coffin with Chux pads in case of any leakage which would cause the cardboard to break. There were pieces of wood in there to give it strength. We used the Techni Dry Ice instead of the real thing overnight. Then, in the morning, we kissed her goodbye, wrapped her in her sheet, and carried her from the bedroom to the living room where the coffin was waiting. Then we carried that out to the waiting van. (We had already checked to make sure it fit.)
The whole family went along to the crematorium, and helped my dad pick out a container for her ashes. It was hard to leave her there - I found it easier to imagine her going into the light instead of thinking about heat and fire. Later in the day we picked up the ashes and my dad was visibly better and relieved. He talked to her and I think he will continue to do that. It is an aspect of cremation that I had not considered; you can feel as if the person is still with you. They gave us a credit for the services we did not use - refrigeration and transportation mainly, and it ended up costing $65!!! That, the flowers, the dry ice and the obituary were all the expenses we had. What a difference from the average funeral!
I started going through some of her papers and found something she had typed about death. In it she said not to grieve too much, as it hampers the progress of your loved ones as they delight in the joys that they have earned. Also she said that the heart stops beating because it no longer needs to knock on the door of life - the door is open.
Today we had the funeral mass, which was really lovely. All the family took part - the musicians played, I did a eulogy, our daughters did the readings, and the grandchildren brought up the gifts. My Dad received communion for the first time since 1945 and cried like a baby. Afterward the women's group had prepared lunch for everyone, which gave us another chance to visit with our friends.
I know this is very long - sorry if it's boring! I hope it can be helpful to someone. I knew this was the right way to go, but until I actually experienced it, I was naturally a little nervous. Thanks for your patience and your support.
From email@example.com, July 28, 2009 reprinted with permission from Rosemarie Belcher.