Live well, Die well
With all the stuff I've learned over the past few months I've come to view the sun as a server of sorts. It's a portal that disseminates energy not only through radiation, light and heat but through continuous streams of packets of information and bursts of upgrades essential to the evolution of our collective on this planet as well as to other planets in the solar system.
I recently subscribed to The Sun and after receiving my first issue a couple of weeks ago I'm impressed at how well the magazine lives up to its name. The poignant black and white photographs paired with the thoughtfully heart-wrenching and opening articles about issues that are so necessary but aren't typically discussed easily evoked emotion and compassion from me. This month's theme was death with a side of breasts. And it's so timely because those two topics seem to be coming up a lot in my life lately.
As humans, death of the body is inevitable. That's a plain and simple fact. Stone cold. Literally. Many people live to old age. Some barely make it to endure their mid-life crisis. Some don't even make it out of the womb. It doesn't matter when or how it happens, it's going to happen. To everybody. And yet for most of us it's taboo.
In today's western culture nobody wants to talk about death for fear of hastening it. We're supposed to fight it off at all costs, from ourselves and from our loved ones. But is death really a villain we're meant to battle? I don't think life is meant to be lived as a lifetime duel with death. Life is a journey and death is just a destination all of our bodies end up at one way or another. And there are endless ways to get there. On a soul level I believe we get to choose.
As an ICU nurse, death is a very real reality with every shift that I work. Although on paper most of our work revolves around preventing death, as you become a seasoned nurse you learn to appreciate it and eventually you start to advocate for it. Death has its place and its time. Although I don't claim to know exactly how, why or when it's decided to happen, from my observations working in the ICU, I can guarantee that there is an energetic soul component to death. The more that you deny it or try to run away from it, the harder the "fight" gets.
When you have ties that you're not ready to let go of or if other people have a tie to you that they're unwilling to break, your soul won't be free to leave, one way or another.
There have been many instances when a patient who has been placed on comfort care (no further life-prolonging measures) and "should've" died often lingers until a loved one finally comes to visit. Recently we had a patient whose body was riddled with cancer and bleeding continuously managed to survive over a week with her blood pressure in the 30s to 50s, just waiting for her son to arrive. She finally passed away several hours after he arrived and as soon as he stepped out of the room to make a phone call. We've had so many patients come from nursing homes who look like corpses with their limbs stiff and contracted from years of being bedridden. They're on the verge of death and yet family members insist on doing everything invasive to keep them alive, even though they rarely ever visit them. They're like deflated Mylar balloons that gets dragged around on the ground by a string because their "loved ones" simply won't let go. And it's funny, because when speaking to other family members, it comes out that the ones who can't let go aren't the ones who were closest to the patient but usually are the ones who have guilt or past issues involving the patient. And then there are also patients who've slowly suffered from chronic disease, consumed by their "battle". They make their journey harder by clinging so rigidly to any form of control in an attempt to steer their path.
I had a patient several years ago who was a frequent flyer in our unit. He was lonely and ornery with no family to call his own. Despite his seeming misery, he always insisted on doing everything to save his life, I think because he was afraid to die. The one night that I did take care of him he finally decided to change his code status and let go. Years after his death I was given a beautiful message from him that his death set his spirit free and he tried to relay to me how beautiful and light his experience and being was. Death is definitely not an enemy you need to do battle with nor is it an adversary to run away from. It's a point in our evolutionary journey and you can either go writhing and kicking or embrace it and see where it takes you.
So how does one die well? Personally, I'd like to die peacefully in my sleep, euphoric, or quickly with a bullet to the head. But unfortunately, most of us don't have the option of consciously choosing or planning how we go out.
Some deaths happen suddenly and without warning. Others are granted some foresight with a medical diagnosis of an ailment and have time to go over different ways to go about dealing with it. I've had to confront the real possibility of my own death after the birth of my daughter seven years ago. I had several episodes of hemorrhaging a few weeks after giving birth to her. The third one was massive and could only be stopped through an emergency hysterectomy. The hours leading up to it were very surreal and I could remember myself calmly suggesting what to do to my nurses on the mother/baby unit when my blood pressure started dipping in the 50s. When presented with the option to do surgery that required intubation (one of my BIGGEST FEARS!) I had to really think about whether I wanted to go through with it. I really had to pause, give my honey a call to talk about it, dig deep and decide whether it was worth it. Although I would've liked to live, between me and you, I honestly wasn't afraid of dying either and would've been okay if that was my last day in my body. I had a life insurance policy that would've helped my family financially, I had no regrets, everyone I loved already knew it, and I had no grudges burning inside of me. I had no control over the situation other than to say yes or no to the surgery(and being intubated), so it honestly just felt like flipping a coin and calling heads or tails. I said yes and here I am today (at least in this reality). I didn't walk away with a revealing near-death experience to speak of nor with a huge settlement from a lawsuit people have tried to convince me to file, but I've always wondered what lesson that episode in my life was supposed to teach me.
I've kept a huge stack of papers as a souvenir from that event- my copy of my medical records from that hospital admission that I've re-read several times over, trying to find answers within those pages. I couldn't find any and I just recently decided to throw them away and let it go. Now that I'm writing this, it's coming to me that maybe that was my lesson on how to die well- by living well. I don't mean living well in the sense that you eat all the "right" foods, and do all the "right" exercises and follow all the rules. When I saw live well, I mean living without regrets, without leaving anything unsaid, without any longings unfulfilled. When you live well, death no longer becomes something to be afraid of and loses its power over you and your loved ones. In that context death becomes just a door that you walk through that changes you from one existence to another. And if you can walk through it with ease, without looking back or any ties to hold you down, the more transformative and freeing it can be for everybody involved.
Hopefully I can ease people's worries about death and change their perception. I'd love to find a way to somehow relay that to my patients and their families in a non-threatening way. Although grieving is a natural process, suffering because of a sense of loss doesn't have to be part of it, which is why I think most people are so afraid of death. They're scared of the suffering they believe will come from losing their body identity, attachment to a loved one, or the loss of an opportunity or a memory. But the more that you avoid or try to fight death the more that it ends up bringing about suffering. As they say, what you resist persists.
Thank you, The Sun, for brightening my night.