A New and Comforting Understanding of Physical Death
With such a cheery title, I would understand if you, treasured reader, skipped right over this post!
I probably would have during earlier decades in my life. But now that I have reached the venerable age of 47, this is precisely the type of topic I find most interesting.
At this stage of my life, I know people who have died – people in my age category, not just older relatives or people my parents knew.
I have been present, just hours before death, at the bedside of someone I loved.
I have also taken an entire course of hospice training, which included watching several videos and reading two books about death.
Yet still I feel so woefully unprepared.
A few weeks ago, my fire alarm triggered in the early morning. At first, my response was irritation….why does the battery always have to die while I’m still asleep….oh! is that SMOKE I smell?
Irritation turned to terror as I raced around my tiny casa, first checking the habitats of both pets, then calling my landlord, then systematically checking each outlet, sniffing my way around my house at knee level.
It shocked me later to realize that, along with my natural instincts to preserve myself, my parrot, Pearl, and my juvenile tortoise, Malti, I was keenly aware of the potential loss of ….. stuff.
My stuff. All the cute little bird and turtle curios and art, the plush throws and pillows and rugs, the carefully curated closet (most of which I never wear), the thrift shop one-of-a-kind lamps, the pom poms and parrot holiday lights that stay up year-round for obvious reasons….
I was mourning – in advance – the loss of STUFF. Oh. my. goodness.
It was right about that time I realized how much work I still have to do around this whole topic of death.
A being can’t die peacefully when they are attached to absolutely everyone and everything around them. It is too much mourning to do all at once, and far too much unknown to confront if the destination ahead includes none of it.
I had thought I was a proud near-minimalist. Nope. I. like. stuff.
There. I said it. 🙁
Shortly after that experience, I had a bit of free time and used it to take up where I left off last reading a friend’s sweet book gift. The book, “The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Fully Living,” by Frank Ostaseki, answers lots of questions, most of which I didn’t even know I had.
For example, what do the elements – earth, water, fire, air – have to do with a being who is dying? Is it because some people like to be buried and others like to be cremated? And even so, that still leaves water and air unaccounted for.
In the book, Ostaseki explains this in a different way, while he is talking to a wilderness guide whose husband is dying right then and there. He uses analogies from nature to explain to her what her husband is experiencing. Since I love nature and find great wisdom there, this was helpful to me too, so I thought I would share it here.
The first thing that happens is that the earth element begins to depart from the body. When this occurs, the person ceases moving about, and sometimes feels numbness in extremities. Sometimes they stop responding to the people around them as their energy level drops.
The next element to depart is the water element. When this happens, bladder and bowels often release (oh yay). Circulation slows down and it becomes harder (sometimes impossible) to swallow.
Next up is the fire element. The body temperature reflects fire’s activity, often producing periods of feverishness alternating with cool, moist sweats. The heat left in the outer limbs retracts, until only the center of the body is warm.
Finally, it is the air element’s turn to go. When air is saying its goodbyes, breathing turns erratic. The person’s breathing may be fast, slow, long, short, or any combination thereof. Finally, there is no more breath.
As Ostaseki summarizes:
Earth dissolves into water. Water dissolves into fire. Fire dissolves into air. Air dissolves into space. Space dissolves into consciousness.
I very much appreciated the inclusion of this last bit, both since I often still feel connected to those who have passed before me (people and animals) and because I wondered where all the Elements go next after they’re gone from the body.
Also, as I was reading through Ostaseki’s description, I realized I had seen all of this occurring as I visited the bedside of the loved one I mentioned earlier, right up until a few hours before their death. I had seen the decreasing weightiness followed by the cessation of swallowing, the fiery fevers and the cool, moist skin to follow, the erratic breathing….the only part I missed was the actual leave-taking.
At the time, I was grateful for that. But now, it feels like a “death preview” or even a trial run or few wouldn’t be out of place.
So after reading about how the elements depart (and becoming aware of how much I appreciated their organized, orderly method), I decided to practice dying. I figured, now that I knew the major actors and the basic outlines of their roles, we could hold dress rehearsals amongst ourselves until everyone feels comfortable and prepared for the “big day.”
I started right away during the next morning’s meditation. First, I visualized myself lying in bed (not difficult since that was what I was actually doing). I imagined the earth element beginning its departure, with my limbs feeling heavy and somewhat numb and my energy cycling down.
(I found this very relaxing, by the way….and also oddly similar to the instructions on my favorite meditation CD.)
Next, I imagined the water within me drying up. This took me out of meditation somewhat, as I debated with myself about how best to minimize, well, mess, for those who might be responsible for me at this time. When I resumed, I imagined not being able to swallow and this made me panic a bit, so I bookmarked that scene to return to later.
From there, I began to work with fire by remembering back to times I have run a high fever and times I have had night sweats, waking up with the sheets soaked and my skin feeling uncomfortably cool and moist as a result.
Finally, it was down to just me and Air. In my mind’s eye, I let my breathing become more creative and free-flowing, slowing down, speeding up, stopping, deepening and then becoming shallow, until at last…..
Then, I visualized experiencing what the wilderness guide discovered when her husband breathed his last. After a few moments of silence had passed, and with Ostaseki still sitting at her side, she wonderingly stated:
I thought I was losing him, but he is everywhere.
Oh thank goodness. Thanks to this woman’s insights, instead of nowhere and nothing, I could now look forward to being everywhere and everything.
So I promptly imagined that.
I visualized being newly departed yet present everywhere, aware of my connection to all that is, and especially to those most dear from whom my physical form had so recently departed.
When I finished this “death meditation,” I checked in with myself and my Elements to see if we were all feeling more comfortable and confident about dying. Discovering the answer was still “no,” we launched right away into a new dress rehearsal.
We went through a few rounds of this, and then I felt my awareness being pulled into a more present-focused meditation.
With this, I practiced simply feeling my connection with all beings, while at the same time processing the realization that my Elements and I will need a lot more dress rehearsals before our little group could have its best chance of delivering a polished “final performance.”
Today’s Takeaway: So what do you think? Have you had an experience of being present near or at the time of the passing of someone you loved (human or non-human)? Do you see any connections in how the elements that make up the physical body retract and depart in those moments? What – if anything – are you doing to prepare for your own passing? Have you set any intention for that time in terms of what you wish most for yourself and/or loved ones?
Cutts, S. (2017). A New and Comforting Understanding of Physical Death. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2018/02/a-new-and-comforting-understanding-of-physical-death/