Death is a funny odd subject. When my grandfather passed away and I metioned to someone that I held his hand at the moment of his death, the first reaction was usually that people said they were sorry for my loss (that is kind and nice), but it was usually followed by a moment of awkwardness, where people avoided my gaze, not quite knowing what to say and most people wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible. It became even more awkward, when I then said, “thank you that is very kind, but it was actually one of the most amazing experiences of my life.” Before you think I am some kind of morbid person or like to hang out on cemeteries at night, I would like to clarify that I am fully embracing life and I love my grandfather very much.
When moments become eternal.
Even though it has been almost two years now, I vividly remember the last day of his life, the last hour, minutes and seconds as if it was yesterday, kind of like in slow motion. When he took his final breath and the body stopped breathing it was as if my heart cracked right open in that moment. It was also obvious to me that the moment the animating life force left his body, the body was just a shell/a corpse and not my grandfather anymore. In a way it was obvious that what we are is not limited to our body. What I was not prepared for though was the overwhelming and intoxicating feeling of love and peace that was present in the room long after his body stopped breathing. It was so overwhelmingly strong that I felt blissful. In a strange way I don´t feel I lost him on that day, but until this day feel more strongly connected to him than ever before. I strongly believe that my years of meditation practice not only allowed me to remain fully present and of service to my grandfather but also had taught me that who we are is so much more than our bodies.
The next interesting moment came a few days after that when I was organising the funeral and decided to see his corpse again to dress him for his last journey. I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive when I was on my way to the funeral home as I had never seen a dead body before. Yet when I entered the room and saw my grandfather´s corpse lying there, I was overwhelmed by love and bliss as he looked so peaceful. It was a very special experience, a gesture of love and an honour to provide him with respect and dignity on his last journey. Yet when I mentioned it to my younger siblings that this was a wonderful experience, they immediately told me to shut up and that it was a disgusting subject to talk about.
Many people avoid speaking and thinking about death.
This actually made me think about how weird the relationship to death is in many (particularly Western) societies. The one thing that is certain from the moment that we are born is that we will die; some sooner, others later. Yet we live our lives avoiding the subject of death and pretending it is just a reality for other people but will somehow not happen to ourselves, our family members or friends. At the same time our fear of death is the “mother” of all our other fears. Death is rarely seen and talked about as the natural course of life. Many of us never see dead bodies and if we do, they are either “beautified” with make-up or it is usually in a dark and depressing atmosphere. For example, in my grandfather´s final hours, a very loving nurse asked us if we wanted my grandfather to wear his teeth as this would make him “look better later”. To me that was an absurd request as it would have meant pain and discomfort for him while alive.
Death is part of the natural circle of life.
I found being with both my grandparents at the end of their lives an incredibly beautiful experience of giving back. When I was a young child, they were bathing me, reading to me, feeding me and putting cream on my body and face. At the final stage of their lives, I was able to give back what I had received and deeply touched by the beauty of the circle of life — in a way we often leave the world in a similar way to how we arrive.
I often remind myself that we can all die any moment, which to me is the most life affirming thought we can have.
Instead of being a depressing thought it deeply energises me. It adds urgency to living life to the fullest, to love more, to give more and to practicing meditation. It adds urgency to being present with all our senses and seeing the beauty in each moment fully inhabiting this one human life we have. It adds urgency to being off-line more and doing the things we care about with the people that are dear to us. It adds urgency to having deep and truthful conversations instead of hiding behind our fears or superficial armoury. It adds urgency to being playful and open instead of serious and closed. It adds urgency to being of service and using time wisely and consciously.
I also ask some of my clients to write their own eulogy as a way of reflecting on their life so far. This can serve as a good reality check, which often prompts clients to place more emphasis on their relationships and the things that truly matter to them.
Coming back to the last hours with my grandfather, the experience inspired me to volunteer in a hospice. I find myself meeting each patient with the same level of affection and unconditional love as if it was my beloved grandfather. It is as if his death served a purpose and prepared the ground for me to do this work in supporting people who are dying.
What would you do today if you would know that it was your last day?