7 Steps To A Beautiful Death
A mindful and joyful approach through the journey of dying
WARNING: Some images may be disturbing to those who are sensitive to images of death.
As much as our 20’s and 30’s are about building our careers and our families, our later years can often become about dealing with loss. We hit our 40’s and our parents begin to show signs of fragility, friends and family members begin to confront illnesses. Sometimes there are those tragic and sudden events at any age that shake us to our core and we are hit with storms of anger, fear and confusion that hound us throughout our day-to-day experiences.
You may never know what that person sitting next to you on the subway, in a meeting or on the other end of the phone is dealing with in their personal lives but we can be certain that most of the people around us have experienced the loss of a loved one. Whether it be a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a relative, a friend or the unspeakable loss of a child — navigating death is a very human experience that connects us all.
My husband, Vic Anderson died one year ago today on April 22, 2015. While living without him this past year has been incredibly challenging, I found the actual process of him dying to be a very beautiful experience. It was an example that the death of a loved one can sometimes be as joyful as the birth of a child.
Because of Vic’s dedicated practice of Tibetan Buddhism he taught me that death is not something to be feared but an important part of the pattern of life. No matter what your religious beliefs may be, I hope you will find some of the lessons our family learned from Vic’s passing to be helpful as you navigate loss in your own life.
Step 1 — Confront and Accept that Death is Inevitable
When we received Vic’s terminal prognosis, we were not in denial about his death. We did not chase hope in the form of the many snake oil treatments that were offered to us. We committed to coming together as a family to honor and respect the time we had left with Vic. We treated every moment with him as if it were the most precious jewel in the world.
His daughter, his grandchildren, our friends and family all committed to making sure that they gave the right amount of room in their busy lives to spend with a man they loved deeply. After his death, no one in Vic’s life had any regret about not spending enough time with him. And more importantly, Vic was constantly surrounded by everyone he loved during his last two months of living.
Confronting his death also allowed the two of us to have some very meaningful conversations about what he wanted for his family and for me after he was gone. Those talks we had at the end of his life brought me a great deal of peace immediately following his death and throughout this last year.
Step 2 — Bring Only Joy — Save Sadness and Grief for When Your Loved One is Gone
My husband demanded that we bring only joy to him. He expressed that there be no sorrow around him during the terminal phase of his cancer and especially at the time of his death. He wanted only joyful energy around him as he transitioned.
His belief was that the frame of mind you have at death will determine how successfully you transition to your next journey. If you are surrounded by strong emotions of sadness and worry you will be conflicted at that moment of death. Even worse, you will be in a state of panic and fear. To my husband this was a greater fear than actually dying. I am a bit more scientific in my own beliefs in what happens after this life but I certainly agreed with him regarding the concept of having a peaceful state of mind at the moment of death.
Four years ago our dear friend KC Crain was dying from cancer and Vic went to stay with KC and his wife Sharon during the last week of KC’s life. His goal was to help KC transition in a peaceful state of mind and he stopped anyone from entering the house who was in tears and/or consumed with sadness. Vic made a big sign that read “Bring Only Joy” and taped it to Sharon and KC’s front door. KC also died beautifully in the arms of his wife, surrounded by friends, family and love. I was very moved when four years later Sharon came to our house two weeks before Vic died and wrote “Bring Only Joy” on our front door. This simple act taught me a great deal about the importance of friendship, support and community.
Step 3 — Focus on Helping the Dying Person Rather than On How It is Impacting You
The biggest shift in healing for me was when I turned my attention away from how Vic’s illness and impending death was affecting me and put my focus on helping him leave here in a way that reflected the wonderful person that he was.
The last breath my husband took was the most profound experience of my life. Had I caved into my sadness as he left this world his last image in his life would have been of the person he loved the most in great despair. I also would have missed the most meaningful moment of our entire relationship — a moment where we were deeply connected to each other and grateful for our journey together.
At the time of his death we were looking into each other’s eyes and I was telling him with joy how much I loved him, how happy I was with him and what a wonderful meaningful life he had lived. His beautiful daughter, Sylvie kept her hand on his heart until it stopped beating. Our close friends were in prayer and meditation in the room with us. Those friends who were not with us were also praying from afar and sending love for Vic’s peaceful transition.
Vic’s last breath and heartbeat was made with the knowledge that he was deeply loved.
During the last 12 months I have found myself revisiting my husband’s last living moment often as it was one of great dignity, realization and grace. And the entire experience was infused with joy.
Step 4 — Write A Living Eulogy
In our culture, we gather after a person passes to express our love and the person’s impact. However, it is imperative that we create the space to let our people know before they leave that they are loved and that they made a difference in our lives. They also need to know that we will be okay without them. This information gives them the peace of mind required to leave without worry and regret.
Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had with elderly family members in my life have been to formally write in great detail the contribution they have made in my life — Highlighting all of the things I have learned from them directly and also through their example. When I gave my grandmother a letter telling her how she had influenced me and how much I loved her on her 80th birthday it profoundly changed our relationship during the last decade of her life — bringing us much closer to each other.
The last two months of my husband’s life were in a song of eulogy given to a man before he left us — We encouraged people to formally create expressions of Vic’s impact on their lives and what he meant to them. These were delivered in person and in writing. After visitors left, his grandchildren would read all of the cards, letters and online notes sent to Vic. Not only did he hear how much he was loved but his grandchildren were able to experience what kind of person their grandfather truly was and the difference his compassionate nature had made in the lives of so many.
This process of writing a living eulogy or letting people know exactly how much they mean to you is tremendously important when it comes to tragic and sudden losses. When my sister died suddenly from a drug overdose in 2012, knowing that we had ended our last conversation with “I love you” just 12 hours before she died meant the world to me. However, I had tremendous regret that I didn’t tell her how much she meant to me as friend and sister. She was the sole witness to my history. No one knew me better than my sister, Vicki and she would have given the world to hear me tell her the contribution she had made in my life by just being my best friend.
Step 5 — Create a Sacred Space
The hospital and funeral business have completely sanitized the process of dying. When my husband was in the hospital his daughter and I decorated his room with his Buddhas. We brought flowers to cover the antiseptic smell. We filled an iPod with the chants and meditations that were important to Vic. We wanted him to have a peaceful environment.
When we brought him home to enter Hospice stage we moved him into his meditation room which is where he was when he died. Vic’s wishes were that after his death, his body be left untouched for 4 days. I worked with hospice to safely do this and his Tibetan monk friend Gyeltsen aka “Big G” helped me shroud my husband in the Tibetan manner. Gyeltsen came daily to lead prayers and meditation in the room during those four days.
Although it seems weird to think about having a dead body in the house for so long, I found the entire process of being able to meditate and pray in the room with him to be very peaceful, comforting and sacred. Many of our friends came by to join us. We all felt that we were still helping Vic on his journey by honoring his wishes. It also allowed us all to truly move into acceptance that he was gone.
On the 4th day, many of our friends and family came to be with me when Vic’s body was to leave for cremation. Rather than have the mortuary take him out of our house, Vic’s grandsons and the men he called friends carried his body out to the awaiting gurney. I have seen Vic support these men throughout the years and it was wonderful to see the reciprocity in that final act of carrying their friend’s body at the end of his journey.
We covered Vic with flowers and said a prayer. It was only when the door closed and his body left that I finally cried for the first time since his death, bursting into tears and falling into the arms of all of my friends who loved us. It was now time for me to express my grief and I did it within a cradle of tremendous support.
Step 6 — Include Others and Expand Your Community
Initially Vic did not want anyone to know about his cancer. He was concerned about the amount of sympathetic energy and sadness that would be directed at him. At some point I had to convince him to let me tell others of his illness. Quite frankly, his daughter, Sylvie and I needed the help of others as it was too much to do on our own. And, even then, it was very difficult for me to ask for help. My longtime friend, Melissa Hayden knew this about me and said, “You have to allow others the opportunity to feel the same joy of a generous heart that you have experienced when you and Vic give to others. Don’t cut people out from having that experience, too.”
I learned that it can be a wonderful experience for friends and family to come together as a community to help someone through death and loss. During this time last year I found out the true nature of my friendships and the character of the people Vic and I had attracted throughout the years. As we navigate our lives we need to build the types of relationships with people who will show up for us as we have shown up for them. These past two years I have learned that no other accomplishment in my life is more important to me than this.
When I speak to my friends and family about the journey all of us had through and beyond Vic’s death, each person will say that what they witnessed was completely transformative and surprisingly wonderful on many fronts. They are forever changed by it and they are rethinking how they will approach the end of life process within their own families.
That being said, not everyone has a large family or community of friends available to them during a time of need. In this situation, hospice can provide the level of support to a family or individual and my advice is that they be brought in as early as possible. Even with all of the support I had, the level of care our hospice team provided was beyond what our friends and family could do to make Vic comfortable and I wish I had brought them in much earlier.
Step 7 — Mourn without Building a Monument to Your Grief
The expectation of many was that I would be flatlined by grief and I am not. I do experience deep and wide waves of excruciating sadness that move through me during many moments throughout the day. They appear when I reach for the phone to call Vic about a funny thing that happened at work and then I realize he is gone. When I realize that I won’t ever be able to hold his hand again. When I find a note he wrote tucked away in a book. When I am afraid. This sadness comes and goes and is very present like a constant hum in my universe.
Even though I never expected to be alone at this stage in my life, I refuse to look at the next phase of my life as broken or potentially less fulfilling because Vic isn’t in it. As I close the door on this past year of my life in mourning, I look forward to a new future that I can write on a clean slate. My heart is filled with gratitude and I have been broken open by the experience of loving and losing someone so deeply. It is on this foundation that I am rebuilding my new life.
The most important lesson I have learned is that with each loss experienced we can find the gift of understanding how precious life is and that we truly do not know how much time we have left with each other. With that knowledge we can connect to each moment with a mindful commitment to love and cherish our time here together.