Years ago, I read a quote that I think captures the most difficult part of going through the dying time with someone we love especially during an emotional time like the holidays. In his novel Island, Aldous Huxley writes about “the excruciating presence of an absence.” Those words pinpointed what lies at the core of the fear we feel when we’re about to lose a loved one: the shattering awareness that soon we’ll be without them.
A Shanti client named Rodney, who was tending his partner Ralph as he died of AIDS, told me he did most of his caregiving as he battled that fear. One night he was overtaken by it, and intuitively, he climbed into Ralph’s hospital bed. Ralph had been in a coma, and non-responsive, for days. Sobbing on his partner’s shoulder, Rodney gently hugged him. Through the tears, Rodney suddenly felt Ralph’s hand squeezing his, a clear expression of support.
“I laid with him for the longest time,” Rodney said, “holding his hand and singing softly in his ear.”
The next morning, when Rodney went to check on Ralph, he discovered that his beloved partner had died during the night. On a notepad near the bed, scrawled in Ralph’s uneven hand, were the words, “I love you.”
“That final gift,” Rodney told me, “will stay with me for as long as I live.”
I’ve always seen that love, whether we sense it in someone’s eyes, feel it in the squeeze of a hand, or experience it in words, is what endures. It’s been an ongoing part of the dying time as you’ve listened, and spoken and acted from the heart, and I’d like to reassure you that none of that love will be lost or diminished if you miss your loved one’s final breath.
Many friends and family members keep vigils at bedsides. But quite often, people die the moment a friend, spouse, lover or child has left the room. That’s given me the sense that for some people, death is something private, to be entered alone.
Know that the time after death is a sacred period of transition, and take your time saying goodbye. There’s no rush to attend to paperwork or phone calls or anything else. Be with your loved one, physically or in thought, saying whatever you need to say. Let Love Carry You
Losing a loved one tears us open. But it is through a ripped-open heart that love’s light can shine through. Rodney’s story showed me clearly that during the dying time we’re not divided into the strong who are healers and the weak who are healed. We find naturally that each of us in turn are healers, and are healed by the love we give and receive.
The love you share now, and will continue to feel, can sustain you. The connection you carry inside will help soothe the pain of your loss. After all, death ends a life, but it doesn’t end the relationship that lives on in your heart and mind.
Trust that. Trust love.
After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and Shanti founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.