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On Death and Dying

Leave it to a three year old to put perspective into ‘why people die’.  On a spring morning when my grandson, Luke, was visiting, we walked through Ross Bay Cemetery.  Tears came to my eyes reading the epitaphs of one loved one after another…  One epitaph was a tribute to a loving wife of more than 60 years – my gosh, 60 years of loving!  When Luke noticed those tears he asked why I was crying.  I replied all these people who have died and lived and loved – it’s so sad!  He then remarked in his very forthright three year old manner, “Well Oma Jo – it’s like this – you get born’d, you live and then you die – that’s it”  How right he was! We are born – there is a celebration, then we live and we celebrate again, over and over the birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays of our life and traditions.  But how about death?  Mostly we celebrate that person’s death after they have died.

A memorial concert was held in memory of Kate McGarrigle.  I remember the duo of Kate and Anna’s music with fondness – beautiful melodies and harmonies.  Reading the article of family interaction, frankness and love and the statement of Kate to her sister Anna prompted me to write this article.  “Only once did she say to me one evening: ‘How come nobody asks me how it feels like to be dying?’ So, we talked about it, but I can’t remember what we said. We cried, and hugged. What else could we do? What are you going to tell someone who knows that they’re dying?”

My friend, Lynn, asked me the same question, she felt so alone in her dying, even though her friends and family were always there for the two months prior to her death from ovarian cancer.  I think she wanted it to go away; she looked for peace and a new spirituality.  She asked me to stay with her one night – in her bed – to hold her and pray.  I could not pray – the words would not come – I was lost in prayer and what to pray for.  So I sang – every hymn and chorus I could remember – and she fell asleep in peace.  I worry still that I didn’t do enough – say what she needed – but I tried and I was honoured.

Dying is not a communicable disease one needs to shirk away from.  Dying is an intimate meeting of heart and soul.  We celebrate birth – the coming into this world, why not death?  Are we afraid of the end because it is an end?  Are we afraid of offending the person by asking?  Some people are very private about this topic but others are waiting for you to come to them, throw your arms around them and beg them to spill what’s in their heart.  How healing for someone dying to be able to spill their soul, all their fear or love of life and loss of the moment to someone willing to listen.  It’s a gift to listen, to ask, to be sought out and to share to and with.

Gloria Taylor, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, recently made headlines in her legal action stating that she wanted the right to die with dignity and with the help of a doctor.  She states “I’m deeply grateful to have the comfort of knowing that I will have a choice at the end of my life – this is a blessing for me …. It allows me to approach my death in the same way I’ve tried to live my life – with dignity, independence and grace.”  What hit me about her statement when I first heard this quote on the radio news is that she puts her death and dying in the same line as life and the fullness of having lived it in dignity, independence and grace.

We may fear death and dying – that is our journey to work through in life and come to a place of peace.  It isn’t for a choice few – we will all die and will have to come to a place where we accept that we will die as we were born and lived.  It – death – is integral to the whole of our life – all of it.

I myself will likely fear dying, not the hereafter, but I will want to know that I can speak about it to others and not have them walk away as if I had a communicable disease.  I would want those I love and depend on to embrace my dying as they have my living – with celebration, with love and deep respect.  If you have a loved one, family or friend, who is at this moment dying, don’t be afraid to ask the question yourself – what can I do to help you through this time.  Ask – you may be blessed.