I longed to give some spiritual sustenance and support to my brother Phillip as he approached and went through his death. Not so much ‘give’ as if it were something I own, but be a conduit for and invite that which I believe is already available to him. Like the shaman that I am (see http://soulrecovery.net/). Never would I use the ‘S’ word with him. Like the words ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ , it might be anathema to his intellectual religious/spiritual neutrality, and to that of his beloved grieving wife, Frances. Yet, they both glow with what to my eyes is a divine-like loving kindness, unsentimental and liberally spiced with humour, for all beings in their sphere – sons, daughter-in-law, numerous pets (two horses, three dogs, four cows) and more. An only slightly stepped down version goes to the rest of the world, especially those in need of advocation, education, or shelter. Phillip in particular, the more outgoing of the two, spent his career life caring for those in need in many different capacities, at times spanning the whole of Britain. He did it humbly and without fanfare. I didn’t know many of the vast details until I heard them in Frances’ portion of our collective family eulogy.
The longing to hold him as he died came up as suddenly as did his fast-moving fatal illness. Complacency had been upon me. I’d long been able to rest in the confidence of our deep filial bond. It had already withstood decades without much substantial contact across the ocean that separated our adult homes. When we did meet for the occasional family reunion, the profound ease, love and respect that had been between us throughout our childhood was always immediately there. He was, in many ways, my first trusted companion in this life. He had never failed me, and I knew he never would.
I wasn’t prepared for him to die in his early sixties. Death. The biggest awakener this side of birth. In more than one of our daily phone calls in the week after we heard about the speed with which his terminal illness was progressing, Phil assured me and our brother Russell that he had no ‘unfinished business’ with us, that we could say good-bye on the phone, that we should only come if it was our need. There was no way on earth that I was going to leave him and Frances without some family support, and given other family health crises I was the only one who could go. And even if our entire extended family was able to show up, I needed to be there for him, for me, and for the call to give to my brother and his family the fruits of my life work, honed through years of practice in counselling and shamanic healing. Thankfully, I was able to get a flight to England and a train to their village in time for Phillip’s last day with some moments of ‘ordinary’ presence and communication, that is, before some unknown combination of cancer, pain, morphine and other meds took him to that place of indeterminate consciousness between this plane and some other.
Saturday June 12th., the day after he’d been moved to another hospital, he was exhausted with the strain of that move. I arrived at his bedside a short while before all 3 of his sons and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law were expected. Thin, weak, and struggling to summon enough energy to talk, he could meet my eyes, speak my name, tell me he loved me, and crack some joke that I can’t remember now. I was doing my best to refrain from spilling the next rush of tears and grief, knowing that he didn’t need to expend precious energy on dealing with that in me.
(This knowledge, as well as being intuitive, comes from both the psychology of death and dying, and from Buddhist teachings about how to support someone approaching death. Buddhism offers some deep, comprehensive, and relatively accessible wisdom on navigating this time of life, but of course much practice is required to become adept, and I’m far from that level of accomplishment. Oh well. Hoping that a heart-in-the-right-place can make up for lack of rigorous practice.)
One by one, his boys and Frances had some farewell time with him, and then we were all busy getting him moved, easily this time, out of the noisy ward and into the single room he’d been promised. It had also become clear that there were too few nurses to give him the care that was now needed, to help him with shifting positions as they became too painful and to give him sips of liquid for his constant, raging thirst. Together Frances and I helped him through the next hours, the younger generation paired up for shifts through the late afternoon and evening, and I returned to be with him through the night. Frances desperately needed a night’s rest, and I was newly arrived from a time zone that was 5 hours earlier. Through the quiet of that night, the practical support of drinks and arms to help shift a failing body were accepted gently by the man who still looked like my brother. Most of the time, he was in a restless trance-like state, but each hour or so he’d call out my name.
Sometimes my response was greeted by his simple smile of recognition and a faint squeeze of my hand, and sometimes by expressions of confusion, fear and questions about what he was supposed to do. In those times, I did my best to assure him that he was not alone, that guidance was there for him if he asked from the inside, that there was nothing to do but step aside from fear and accept what he heard and the strong light that approached as part of his own being.
I was praying to strike a balance that would not violate his own belief system, would be authentic to my own experience, would not reach beyond my levels of trust, and would shield him from any fear and doubt of my own. He seemed to take some comfort, if not from my words, from the love in them. At times that night, his agitation would increase and he’d answer with a faint ‘yes’ when I asked him if it was physical pain he was feeling. Fortunately, we hadn’t yet reached the limits of the nurses’ authority to raise the med levels, and so his pain could be managed.
Toward morning, he was sleeping more, albeit with laboured breathing, and requesting fewer drinks. I was doing my best to combine my own instincts with a meditation practice prescribed in a recent, fortuitous reconnection with an accomplished Buddhist teacher. He had suggested that in order to support Phil’s passage, I chant aloud the simple Tibetan mantra to invoke loving kindness. The mantra felt right, but the chanting was wrong for the environment, my fatigue, and Phillip’s countenance. For three hours I repeated the mantra in silence, the most sustained meditation practice I’ve ever been able to do. Phillip’s breathing lost its laboriousness whenever I was able to sustain strong concentration, and I lost my fatigue.
Close to the ceiling in this old country hospital, a spider walked clock-wise around and around the room, never once threatening to descend and irritate. A cocoon of protection. Mid-morning, just before Fan and one of the boys arrived, our spider’s life ended with a fall to her death in the corner of the room furthest from Phil’s bed.
As Sunday unfolded there was more agitation for Phil and so for his team of family care-givers. Confusion, disorientation, and physical distress were much greater than the previous day, the increase in meds offered by an on-call doctor was not enough to relieve his pain, and the system could offer nothing further until the head of palliative care was due to come in on Monday morning. Not only our grief had to be screened from the immediacy of Phil’s bedside, but also our anger at the system’s failings and our own feelings of helplessness. It was a hard day for all of us, and when I came back to do my overnight shift after an early evening nap, I was more anxious and less confident than I’d been the night before. Drinks were no longer wanted, and it wasn’t possible to bring him comfort with a soothing word or hand. His distress was heart-breaking. I climbed onto the bed with him and held him through the night. He was able to cuddle into my body, much like a very young child would do, and find a few moments of comfort, alternating with extreme agitation.
Searching for something that might soothe, I wondered about the Hebrew prayer that our nephew and I had sung to our father as he lay dying ten years ago, even though I knew that Phillip had long since disconnected from Jewish traditions. I asked him if there was anything I could sing for him, and he said ‘No’. On an impulse, I began to softly chant the Buddhist mantra aloud. In a lucid whisper, Phil asked me what I was saying. I told him it was a chant to invoke loving kindness and asked him if it was okay to continue. He whispered a ‘yes’, then within minutes said: ‘That’s enough’, with the last shadow of spontaneous humour, for which he was famed throughout his life. I asked if it was okay to do it silently. He said yes, and that he’d still be able to hear me.
Soon after, as the light began returning, Phil fell into a sleep that was deeper than anything he’d had through the night, and I was able to slip out and down the hall to the ‘quiet’ room and allow my tears to wash out another wave of loss, frustration, and fatigue.
When I returned, Fan and her future daughter-in-law were there, relieved to find Phillip resting somewhat peacefully. He didn’t, thankfully, have to endure another round of agitation, as the head of palliative care came in early and prescribed new and unlimited pain medication that worked. We continued to take turns being with him through that day and evening while he ‘slept’ with only occasional needs to move or be moved. His middle son was with him about 4 the next morning when he passed in seeming peace. We all gathered at his bedside in that wee hour for our final, private farewells.
I chose to stay with his body through much of that day – a fusion of intuition with an honouring of the Jewish way. It’s also what would have been prescribed by native, Buddhist, and Hindu communities. I continued with silent mantra practice, but can’t say that I was aware of his soul presence, and by mid-afternoon had to relinquish my solitary watch in order to care for my own body. The next days were filled with funeral planning, eulogy writing, and finally a ritual remembrance and memorial that shone with appreciation for the Phillip we loved, and also deepened our connections with each other.
The shock of having to fly back soon after was mediated by the unorthodox, mini-‘shivas’ that unfolded spontaneously with my loved ones at home. (‘Sitting shiva’ is the Jewish practice of friends and community supporting mourners for 7 days after a funeral by bringing food and sharing remembrances.) On day 3, I woke from a vivid dream in which I was in a darkened, basement room of a house I didn’t recognize. With me was a man who seemed to be a combination of Phillip and a former client of mine who has a demeanour similar to Phil’s. Through the open door I could see brilliant white light. As Phil turned and walked out the door, my original Buddhist teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche appeared in his lama’s regalia, sitting on a ritual throne-like chair. His voice was reassuring as he told me that all I need do f or my brother now is encourage him to walk without fear into the unknown.