On Friday I had the privilege of visiting a young adult relative of mine who has just been moved into a hospice to live out her final days/weeks. I say ‘privilege’ because nothing gives me greater humility and opportunity to really live my awakening experience than being in the presence of someone I care about who is dying, all the while remaining fully present- to her.
I have been in the presence of death before, as I sat with my dying father until the very end a few years ago. He didn’t want to know he was dying, didn’t want to talk about it, and had very specific views on what death meant to him. I completely respected his wishes and focussed on making him comfortable and cherishing the memories of our relationship through photo albums and quiet discussions.
That was a very profound, healing experience which changed me in many ways. It has also inadvertently prepared me for my niece’s diagnosis, which is similar in some respects (she has cancer, albeit a different type to the one my father had), in their suffering, but also very different in their coming to terms with their fate.
On the contrary to my father not wanting to know, my niece has demanded to know the outcome from day one. She has also been open about her emotions, telling the family she does not want to die (naturally, as she is young and has children), crying, raging and falling into depression, constant hospital visits due to severe pain, sepsis, stent and other surgeries in an attempt to cure and then manage her cancer, and eventually, upon realising the inevitable, having to sort out legal arrangements for her children and arrange her own burial plot. All of this she has done with the utmost strength that she didn’t believe she had.
Seeing her on Friday, bone-thin and frail in her wheelchair, left me sad of course but in deep reverence for the grace she has shown in managing her terminal illness. Unfortunately we were not close growing up due to family circumstances, but I am only a few years older than her. Yet that day we sat in the beautiful hospice grounds in baking sunshine, my mum also with us, and talked about our memories of my grandmother who died many years ago. I was surprised to find that even as a very young child at the time my nan died, she remembered things about her that I did not.
We also talked openly about death. She has paid for a double grave and wishes my mother to be buried with her when the time comes, to which my mother agreed. My niece then said she didn’t know what she believed any more. My mum immediately jumped in with ‘Well I do, and I’m expecting you to be waiting for me!’ reminding me once again that me and my mother share a very similar sense of humour and approach to life, despite our very different experiences and personalities. My niece laughed and said ‘What makes you think I will be waiting for you?!’ changing what could have been a heavy atmosphere into a lighter one.
That is not to say there was no room for the heavy stuff – on the contrary, my niece’s oncologist arrived to see her while we were there. I’ve known from all accounts he’s a lovely genuine man who also makes her smile and laugh, but even I was touched beyond belief when he hugged her and told her he would be there for her even though treatment had ended. it was a beautiful moment of raw humanity, one human being reaching out to another, the deepest act of love. I am not obviously referring to romantic love or any sort of attraction, but the willingness to be with someone to the end no matter how hard it gets, this is the love that is no less than pure Divine.
And isn’t this really what awakening is about? Beyond all labels of spirituality and what may happen after death, it’s about being completely open to the experience of life and what it means to be here in our human clothing, for however long we have. It’s being prepared to meet our experiences head on, however bad it gets. And most of all, being there with others even when it could be easier and perhaps more understandable to turn away from their suffering because it scares us that it could become our own.
Being present to ourselves and others in the deepest pain is the love that ultimately frees us all from the binds of this world. As my niece nears her physical end she knows that we have been there for her, hearing her, loving her for who she is, and that is the greatest gift of all.