My fascination and comfort with death started with my animals as a child. Kittens, especially, seemed to meet their short fates in graphic ways, that, for the sake of more sensitive readers, I won’t go into. I held my adored birds, cats, dogs and assorted livestock as the last breath was gasped, then gave them a proper burial. I was the only one who cared, but it seemed cruel to me to leave a dear animal friend to die without comfort and witness.
In Austin, I inherited a support group for people with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. This was the early days of this horrific disease, before the cocktail of medications that kept people alive. I once again watched Beloved friends die. In our weekly group, we experimented with pre-death memorials – so just in case we weren’t watching from afar (places to go, people to see) we could listen to what people would say about us after we were dead. It was ceremonial and enlightening. Most people had no idea how much they were loved and would be missed. Sometimes we spoke for estranged family members, which were often the case for ostracized gay men: apologies that would never happen were spoken by proxy, with love, kindness and deep regret for what was lost. The one whose life was being celebrated would take a corpse-like pose in the center of our circle. Strangely, I miss those days.
I’m sure us ‘boomers’ will be busting up the funeral industry and how death and dying will evolve as we lie down in our own sacred death rooms. I was privileged to attend a number of deaths as a volunteer hospital chaplain. I was often on the cancer ward as a patient was struggling to die. This is a fierce passage, made more difficult by the beliefs held that we have done something wrong and do not deserve heaven. The dysfunctional family gathers, each with their own family role and agenda.
I was once called into an argument between brothers that had escalated into physical violence, over the father’s dying body. The nurse that called offered that the flamboyant older brother had arrived from his life in Hollywood, where he was developing his acting career. His younger brother had been the one to offer care, day to day, for their father as he descended into the helplessness of Alzheimer’s. Of course, the fight was about money. The nurses had managed to separate the two, placing the older brother in the chapel, where he was rearranging candles and fuming.
I entered and took a seat. We were alone in the room and it took a while for him to notice that I was there. When he did, he asked me if I wanted him to leave so I could pray. I told him I didn’t pray much, except for the highest good for all concerned. He stopped moving things around and came to collapse into the chair beside me. I asked if he needed a hand to hold – that he must be going through something really hard. “My father is dying. He never loved me. I deserve half the estate, but I just found out everything is going to my brother.” He offered his hand to be held. As I took it, my strategy landed.
I asked him what he did and where he lived. As our conversation developed, I was able to suggest that he could be facing the toughest role of his career – allowing the past to soften into the possibility of kindness toward his father in the man’s dying moments. What would that look like? What would he say? Could he be compassionate and grateful toward his brother and his role as caregiver? As was often the case, I don’t know how this new role of his played out. I hope it was an Oscar worthy performance, and the brothers were able to mend their hearts, just a bit.
The transition of death brings forth much that can heal in family dynamics. A skilled facilitator outside the family system can often assist shifts in awareness and behavior simply by calm, loving presence and gentle suggestions of peace in the turmoil of loss.
Death & Dying