“Death is only an experience through which you are meant to learn a great lesson: YOU cannot die.” –Paramahansa Yogananda
I have been a professional in the field of death and dying for the last thirteen years, beginning as a hospice volunteer in the Park City, Heber Valley and Sundance areas of Utah in 2001. As a practicing acupuncturist and massage therapist, I traveled to the homes of those in the last weeks or months of life, offering compassionate presence and hands on healing to ease pain and suffering. In the years that followed, I continued to work with the dying or those severely debilitated and chronically ill with syndrome labels like ALS, MS, dementia, late-stage cancers and others.
The more I sat with the dying, the more I saw the futility of effort, the fruitless energy waste, when one attempts to control or alter experiences. I came to see and feel deeply that what the dying person wanted was a listening heart, someone not invested in their form. Those nearing this passage wanted a companion with no ulterior motive, someone who could just be. It wasn’t about my technical skills, gifts of healing touch, years of training, what really mattered was seeing their immortality and each encounter became a profound meditation on the eternal nature of Life itself.
I have never actively looked for clients in this realm. They always seem to find me. A recent encounter with Gary Muir came just six weeks after my own father had passed.
Sixty-four year old Gary Muir was out of options. His bodily decline had come on quickly, his wife Katie informed me via phone one afternoon. Gary and I were acquainted. I’d seen him at a couple of events, the last time four years ago. After his rather slow-moving prostate cancer had suddenly spread, they decided to try chemotherapy which exacerbated the situation and nearly shut down his kidney function.
Gary and Katie did what they thought was best. With a teenage son to care for, Gary may have pressed the treatments farther than he wanted. One day earlier, Katie told me that Gary looked right at her, with piercing intensity, and said:
“Let’s die now! Just die.”
The next morning I drove to the Aptos hills. Gary had returned home from the hospital the evening before and was set up in a modern cottage, which faced a wildlife-strewn, open meadow built adjacent to the main house. I peered through the sliding glass door entryway to see the 6 foot 10 inch Scotsman attired in only a hospital gown which made it just passed the knees. He seemed to be awkwardly resting on a child’s toy mattress. As I walked in, I realized that the contraption he was perched on was in fact a normal-sized hospital bed. His toes dangled over the edge of the back rail. Drain tubes, attached directly to each kidney, via specialized catheters, were hanging over the bed rail siding. Based on the amount of urine inside the bags, his left kidney was the only one functioning. I stood just inside the entrance, before walking to the bedside opposite his wife Katie.
“Hi Gary” Our hands came together. “How’s it going?” Gary looked at me silently. Katie began speaking quickly to avoid a growing sense of impending doom. Something urgent was coming through Gary’s eyes. I was listening to Katie exude forth practical formalities related to caregiving but they were of secondary importance. The forefront of consciousness was more interested in the subtle, dire question being put forth by Gary:
“Are you going to help me die!?” It said. The inner query contained equal parts vulnerability and strength. As our eyes met in that instant, a silent affirmation and contract was established. We were going to die together.
Suddenly Gary added:
“Are you okay with soiled sheets?!” Bedridden, his bowels were also out of his voluntary control. He was making sure that I could respect that in an easy, dignified way.
“Oh Sure,” I said, with certainty. His expression changed, the facial muscles released. I felt his body relax against the mattress. With his urgent, spiritual inquiry answered and now, the last worldly concern gone, Gary could get on with the effortless work of dying.
Because, really, how hard is it to die? We gladly go to sleep each night, our own mini-death. In truth, sleep is an essential respite which keeps the human-being alive and sane, well partially sane.
I’ve always been good with deconstruction. Tell me you’re about to build a new wood deck and I’ll be lost in a haze; if you want me to deconstruct an existing platform however, I’m your man. I will tear down the decaying wood with glee and determination, clear away the old junk and leave you with nothing but simple ground. I can show you that the old stuff was not needed, nor did you really lose anything at all. This ability is well suited for end of life caregiving. Those entering the dying process are not interested in building up, they want to let go. So I sit with them in the still presence of being, wherein a harmonic attunement takes place, make-believe identities fall away, the stories and past histories of who we thought we were can release. It is a timeless space where the ‘I am the body’ idea fades, becoming less and less interesting.
I would sit with Gary for hours at a time, each day and night. We probably sat silently– six, eight, even ten hours each twenty-four hour period– in meditation together. The primary sound heard was the vital breath dancing into and out of form. I would be there 7:00 pm to 7:00 am and sleep only two to three hours each night, then work about six additional hours during the day.
Occasionally Gary would open his eyes (he was on a maintenance pain medication) and we would meet in the stillness. What was there to say at this point?! We both knew that exchanging words would move energy outward towards the mind, the world, when the natural inclination was to go inward and the vast depth of Spirit.
About two hours of each day, the first four days, I would give him firm acupressure on trigger points, releasing tension and energetic blockages from the body. As the final days came, the hands on sessions turned gentle and nurturing. Using my yoga-inspired-limberness, I negotiated around the hospital bed and Gary’s lengthy frame, maneuvering into leverage positions, using the wall, bed rails and various, never before used yoga props and moves. In this way, I was able to touch him with as little tension in my own body as possible.
I’ve always been suited for end of life caregiving. My former partner, an astrologer, once said to me:
“With five planets in Scorpio, four in the eighth house, you are someone who must first go through the medicine before you can help others with it. It is like you gets buried in the ground with a straw to breathe through as an initiation and only then are you able to work with others.” I guess being practically glued to a bed during a two year debilitating illness might qualify as an initiation.
Even as a young child, upon hearing that someone familiar to me had just died, I would formulate a fantasy eulogy for them. Equal parts awestruck and horrified by the end of life screenplays happening inside the mind, I would shake my head in wonder, saying to myself:
“Where did that come from?” Then I would laugh. Sometimes I would see that a sport’s figure, well-known to me, had died and the eulogizer would download yet another tribute. In my dreams for years, both in the day-dream fantasy-type and the nocturnal dreams, the eulogizer appeared as if deposited by a wise-cracking, Spirit Grandfather. I learned to accept this anomaly, and perhaps gift, much like one would a recurring, elbow twitch.
After that initial meeting, Gary and I spoke only one sentence, on separate days, during the entire time together. On the second day together, as I was releasing some tension in his lower neck with acupressure, Gary said:
“Oh, that’s so good!” That was it. I suppose I may be taking credit for some angelic interlude but I think he was talking to me. Another day, though he seemed quite deep in soul sleep, I told him:
“You remind me of my first meditation teacher, both in look and spirit.” Later Katie told me that Gary had been on an active spiritual pursuit in his twenties, meditating with sages and yogis in the Himalayas, traveling to India, Japan and many places in SE Asia. One time Gary was wrongly incarcerated. I never found out why. Ram Dass, the widely regarded spiritual teacher-author, came to the prison as part of a Prison Ashram Project. As Ram Dass was walking amongst the inmates, he suddenly stopped in front of Gary and said:
“Now there’s a bright light!”
Nearly forty years later Gary was drawing from those years spent on the spiritual quest. Like many others nearing the so-called end of life, he was letting go into the great beyond. With enthusiasm, happy to drop into the space of pure consciousness, Gary was blasting through the veils of conditioned beliefs, conceptual thinking and identification with mind states.
Most dying people I have been around have a natural inclination to let go. Some of those nearing death try to find completion with certain family members or with things they’ve done ‘wrong’ or not done ‘right’. I find that the biggest challenges the dying person faces is related to family members who often struggle to let go of the relationship form.
During my limited time away each day, it was critical to be in nature as much as possible. I would hike in the forest or walk on the beach, eat a simple healthy meal, then go to the Tea House Spa for some water medicine. This recharged my energy body so I could continue to meet the intensity that builds up as one nears the form change.
Each day a certain routine transpired with Gary and me. I would arrive, check in with Katie about caregiving considerations: shifts in bodily comfort, specific needs or challenges. Then I would watch Katie lovingly tend to her husband with a tenderness so delicate and deep. She would then leave and I would sit down on the futon couch next to the hospital bed so we could meditate together. Spontaneously I would get up, give massage, put a cold rag on his head, or swab his lips with a cream. At other times, after long periods of sitting, I would move into a nearby room for spontaneous dance movements, deep breathing, light yoga or qi gong.
My closest friends, along with newborns and infants, are those that predominantly rest in being, rather than mind. I am drawn to vulnerable and open souls, people who are comfortable with the unknown. Those that are dying are kindred spirits, as they too are moving into deeper recognition of being.
I love helping people to die well. It is a simple job and effortless for me. It is an honor to be with someone saying farewell to the world, for our deepest peace lies in forgetting this illusory “I” and the separate body idea that springs from it. We are always bodiless and timeless, whether we realize it while in form or not.
Even though Gary’s outer life may not have appeared spiritual-centered to some, it was. He was attuned to being and no longer needed specific practices or techniques. Most people who are nearing the end of form-identity begin to feel the bliss of being calling them home. If they are aware that this is a natural inclination, fear and other mind states have no sway over them.
It was only six days that we spent together, Gary and me. On day four, I kept getting a certain sense that the final exit was near. Katie was getting terrified that I wanted to have a night off. She did not know how she could do it. I kept feeling that no matter the escape tactic used, Katie would not be able to miss his final departure.
On the day Gary passed on, I told Katie I was still coming back to spend the night but was taking a break from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm. A large, one-day storm was to blow in that night. As I was returning that evening, a tremendous downpour ensued. I drove through the gate and sprinted from the car to the covered deck in front of the cottage. Removing my rain coat and shoes, I peered through the glass slider.
Katie was kneeling by the bedside her head nestled on Gary’s chest, her left hand over his. One could easily mistake this for a birth scene. This birth, however, was the so-called death. The room was alight with a potent force. I felt lifted out of myself; I was walking into and being graced with a tidal wave of light, while being inseparable from that light. It was a palpable light coming through me, out of me, it was everywhere. It was animating the room. The impulse was to dance, sing and celebrate.
Instead, I moved towards the bed with a type of reverence one might have while entering a temple, holy shrine or attending the birth of a newborn child. Katie, looked up, she was quite distraught.
“I think he just took his last breath.” I did not need to look at the corpse beside me to know that the life force was free. Still, I put my hand over Gary’s heart, no movement, no sound and then searched for a radial pulse at the wrist: Nothing.
“What do you think?” Katie asked, looking at me, her eyes downcast, holding on to a residue of hope, that magically, I could reverse the truth.
I was kneeling next to a lifeless body, yet Life was never more alive.
“Yes,” I said quietly, “he’s gone.” I closed my eyes, then opened them, looking at Katie. “And still the room is alive with his spirit.” Gary was not dead to me. The room was a volcanic eruption of ethereal force.
“Really, you feel it?!” Katie said, holding tightly to the lifeless body, her eyes tearing up.
I scanned the room in awe. Whispering a few words of sympathy and compassion, I touched Katie’s arm tenderly.
“There was no struggle. It’s just that the next breath did not come.” Katie finally managed. “I was so scared that he would struggle or be in pain and I would not know what to do.”
After about thirty minutes Katie left to tell her fourteen year old son Nick that his father had passed. The last thing she wanted to do was call the mortuary and have them come out at night in a rain storm. I told her that leaving the body undisturbed for as long as possible is a good thing. At the sliding door to leave, she asked me if I could still spend the night with Gary.
“Of course,” I said, before moving over to the futon next to Gary.
With eyes wide open in rapturous meditation, I smiled into the illuminating and loving Spirit that is not born and cannot die.
–Michael Harrington lives in the hills above Santa Cruz, CA.