Last week delivered the painful blow of closure. My exploration into the path of an End-of-Life-Doula was sparked by a 2018 conversation with a friend. He shared the challenging news of his diagnosis and prognosis, which prompted my life-altering question that blessed us both. I shared that story in a previous blog post:
My friend and I live on opposite corners of the country, and while we held each other close, we communicated infrequently. Each of our communications informed me of his failing health. He was prone to positivity, but would often allude to the truth of his situation. I worried that I would not know when he’d reached the end of his path. I lacked a connection to anyone else in his local world. So, when he popped into my mind, I would send a text message to let him know I was still here… holding him close and wishing him WELL.
Our last reciprocal communication occurred after the death of my father and his first birthday without him. I sent a note: “Sending love from afar. Hoping you are safe and well. Missing you so much. Love, love, love.” He replied: “Always love hearing from you. I wish i was doing better, but don’t seem to be making much progress. My legs have pretty much stopped working, so now I use a walker 24/7 which isn’t ideal, but I’m not going to let that get me down. Continue to be optimistic. All in all I know things will get better. I hope you are doing well. I’m certain you are!! (heart, heart, heart)”
I wrote back: “Oh, beloved. I’m sorry for this news of added struggle and body betrayal. I wish I were closer and could offer support. My dad died on July 17. Yesterday was his 84th birthday and last month was my parents’ 60th anniversary. I’m so grateful he was mine. He’s my new angel. I’ll send him over to shower you with blessings. I love you.” I sent pictures of my Pop, so that he might recognize him should he show up in his dreams. But in truth, if one can sense the presence of an angel, I wanted him to know that my Pop, who knew the reality of body betrayal, coping with his own for most of his life, while supporting others throughout his career, would be a safe receptacle for his hopes and fears. My friend promised to keep his eyes open for Pop.
My worries about not knowing were put to rest last week, when my phone rang and I heard an unfamiliar voice. My friend’s husband spoke his name, and I knew. I knew that he was calling me with bad news about our mutual beloved. I had texted last week, and again that morning – without reply. I’m so grateful that he took the time to reach, even in the depths of his grief.
He shared that his husband had been struggling to walk in recent weeks. He required assistance getting to the bathroom. It was obvious that the cancer had wrapped itself around his spine, and wasn’t about to let go.
He reminded me that my friend did not thrive in a state where he lacked control, and informed me of his powerful choice. They live in a state that offers Death with Dignity, and this is the path my friend chose for himself. His beloved hoped for more time, but absolutely honored and supported his end-of-life preference to avoid greater suffering.
With his doctor’s support, a compassionate end was arranged. In Oregon, one with a terminal diagnosis may be provided a medical prescription for departure. I have offered this compassionate care to the cats I have loved. Instead of a long and languished or painful end, my Vet came to the house to bring comfort and release. I cannot imagine why this is not standard practice with humans who suffer with no hope of future wellness. I am grateful that it was possible for my beautiful friend. He lived, and left this world, on his own terms. A peaceful warrior, from brilliant beginning to elegant end.
As we spoke, I was reminded of the duality of emotions with my father’s passing. Though he could not speak at the end, he left his wishes in writing. Releasing him from life support was my final act of loving kindness and respect for the man who loved me for all of my days. I did not betray him by holding on. I honored him by letting go. My friend asked his husband of 25 years to let him go, and he did not betray him. The doctor was present, and it was a blessing for these two lovers to peacefully part in the physical sense. It’s hard to describe the honor of presence during our final transition… but there is a gentle coming of peace that arrives with the grief of longing. I hope to be so well-loved when I reach my end of days.
My Mom’s friend posted an article this week about people ‘taking matters into their own hands’ at the end of life, by ceasing to eat or drink. It states that one can go 7-10 days without food or water to accelerate rather than to prolong death. But the truth of the matter is that this is still a painful ending, and it is not necessary.
About 20 years ago, my grandfather (my Dad’s father) was in his mid-80s, living with leukemia and macular degeneration. He was ready to go, and asked his doctor what that would look like if he stopped taking the plate full of meds that were keeping him alive (a regret of many, according to what Stephen Jenkinson refers to as palliative care causing prolonged dying, rather than prolonging life). The doctor said if he stopped eating and drinking, he would pass within a week or two.
And so, that’s what he set out to do. He discussed it with his wife and adult children, and the appropriate paperwork was established with DNR (do not resuscitate) signage posted throughout the home where he chose to die. Two weeks passed, and my grandfather… did not. He received news that a dear life-long friend of the family died in her sleep. He declared it was not fair. “Why am I still here?” He relented to the suffering and allowed his youngest daughter and caregiver to administer a bit of soup and water. It took that sweet man a month of suffering to pass from this world. It was a month of painful witnessing and space holding by those who loved him, too. It was an atrocity that he was not permitted to part in comfort and peace, on his own terms.
There are more stories of suffering at the end of life that I could use to prove this point and argue for a countrywide declaration of a Compassionate End for those with a terminal diagnosis who wish to die with dignity, but I want to return to my position of gratitude. I am grateful that this sacred being, whom I adored, who came into my life to play a vital role in preparing me to care for my father, was able to stand at the portal between the worlds, and step through the veil without regret.
I have a candle burning for him, just as I did when my father left in July. I wrote the words that came to mind as I held him close. The flame dances in the jar, and he inspires me to write.
It feels as if my world has come full circle. I met this man before leaving the corporate world, and our conversations ignited end-of-life study and the timely first steps on the path of making friends with death. I was able to walk, without fear, beside my father to the edge of the unknown. And now… both of these sacred beings have stepped off of my path. I am so grateful for every little thing.
Farewell mighty warrior and treasured friend. Your last name was the same as Dumbledore’s Phoenix, and I see that you have lit the heavens with your beautiful light. Your transformation from earthly appearance to energetic form renders you no longer limited. Knowing you has been my great joy, and I am forever changed by your friendship and love. Thank you in advance for communicating with me in ways that I can understand. I promise to keep my eyes and mind open to receive.
Thanks for walking this path with me. I love knowing you are here.