Sacred Dying

Based on an interview with Maggie A.*, a mother, daughter, and one of ten siblings. Her husband passed away from cancer three years ago, and this is her story. 

After raising ten children, my mom went back to college and completed her bachelors when she was 60. She went on to get her masters and started a whole new career. She is an inspiration. I learned my love of life from her; we are both interested in everything. 

I grew up in the mid-west, a town on the Mississippi River. I am the second eldest of ten and the first girl. None of us were ever alone or lonely as there were always so many people to play with. My sister and I, the two eldest girls, shared the burdens of childrearing. Mom took care of the babies, and we focused on the toddlers. By the time I was eight years old, I was holding babies and changing diapers, and remember we used cloth diapers back then.

Imagine the noise and chaos in my childhood home, but my mom managed to keep things in order. She made all of our clothes, taught Sunday school, and sang in the church choir. She loves every piece of life. In the summers, she organized picnics in the park and took all of us swimming. During the holiday season, in the middle of everything, she would say let’s take a break, then walk over to the piano and play Christmas carols. She is 87 now and doesn’t look a day over 70. She still teaches English at the library.

My dad worked three jobs to support the family and that took a toll. The stress and responsibility chafed away his joy. The younger kids don’t remember him as a loving father the way I do; they are always asking me to tell them stories about him because they only knew the stern man with a heavy hand. My dad passed away when he was only 59, and my mom took care of him while he was dying. Twenty-five years later, I followed in her footsteps and cared for my husband while he passed away. No death is the same, but the common experience of caring for a loved one at the end of his life is a special bond she and I share.

Danny* was my soul mate and the love of my life. When I was with him, I felt I had everything I ever needed. The simple moments of the two of us together in the same space is magical. Three years ago, Danny was diagnosed with stage-four esophagus cancer. He was visiting his new granddaughter when the doctor called him to come home. After seeing an image of the tumor, I panicked that I wouldn’t have Danny with me for too much longer. I wanted to throw up. The doctor told us it was terminal, but treatment could extend Danny’s life for three to four months.

Danny wanted to die at home, and I wanted to respect his wishes. During the last few months of his life, I quit my job so I could be fully present and help him pass the way he wanted. He was terrified of dying. “Do I no longer exist?” He asked. He worried his love for people and his memories wouldn’t matter. He worried about hell. I told him, “I believe death is merely a transition, and on the other side is pure love, understanding, and no judgment.” And he would say, “You don’t know that for sure, that’s just what you believe.” After two rounds of treatment, he was still worried, but he began to say, “Whatever is out there is better than this.” He hoped to live through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his birthday in January. He didn’t get that far, but we were able to enjoy an early Thanksgiving while he was still able to eat solids.

Religion was not a part of Danny’s life, and he was adamant no priests nor pastors could come to the house. I understood what he meant, and at the same time, I struggled with how to help him make his dying meaningful. Our hospice counselor was wonderful, and she recommended the book Sacred Dying. The book spoke of things I would never have considered; who knew that the dying prefers a clean, uncluttered space. I moved books, decorations, and furniture out of Danny’s room, and we found candles, incents, and music that he liked. Danny had a great love for nature, and when I came across a Native American poem describing the transition from this life to the next, he decided it would be a part of his end-of-life vigil.

The night Danny passed away, I had been up for four straight days taking care of him. He was hooked up to a painkiller pump and a catheter and couldn’t talk very much. By the way he shifted in bed, I could tell he was agitated, so I lit the incents and the candles, and I put on the chosen music. After I had read a verse from the poem, he calmed down. I whispered in his ear, “This is the time. Thank you for loving me. I love you.” At 12:15 am I sat down on the couch for a rest and dozed off. I woke up at 1:00 am and rushed his room. I could see before I reached him that he wasn’t breathing.

I didn’t know what to expect at that moment, and I was stunned to find myself filled with joy. I was so happy for Danny that he was whole again. After he had passed, I never became overcome with grief since I did all my grieving while taking care of him. Often when I think of Danny, I think of the day we went fishing by a windy lake in the mountains. It was just the two of us, and we weren’t even talking. I looked at him and he looked at me, and that was enough. He looked healthy and vibrant, so handsome. I was very lucky, and I can’t wait to see him again.

What has shocked me more than anything is how much taking care of Danny has changed me. Helping him die at home and transition in a meaningful way was the most important thing I’ve done since giving birth to my daughter. It’s been almost two years, and I am surprised how fast time has gone by. I miss Danny like crazy, and I want to ask him, “Honey, did I get it right?” I thought I would feel a void, and I wasn’t sure if I would be happy again. But I’ve been happy, and I am not disheartened. I am more emotional, more sensitive to things. I weep more easily, be it in joy or sadness. I am starting to cook again and setting the table for one. I am enjoying my life.

*All names have been changed.

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