A few months ago I started to write a blog about my experience with minor skin cancers and before I finished writing it, a very close friend was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer and given 2-3 months to live. In my mind the blog I was writing became pathetic in comparison to her situation and I found myself asking "What do I really know about having cancer?" "How can I possibly help when I live so far away?" "What does dying really mean and why are we all so afraid of it?" It's been a sobering journey to be faced with these questions and at each step of the way I've stayed present and offered whatever I was able to offer... at first a listening ear, then professional advice about alternative options for treatment, followed by willingness to travel to be with her, to accompany her to a Swiss clinic, to be beside her in whatever treatment choices she was making without judgement or opinion. She took the information and moved into her familiar coping strategies. It's no surprise that in the face of death we usually tend to engage the same behaviours we have used to manage our lives before the diagnosis. Left alone with my feelings and unable to give the kind of support I believe I would have wanted myself, I've been on my own personal journey with death and loss, in the context of the culture we live in. And also the journey of respect that comes from allowing someone you love deeply to make their own choices, even if you think there might have been better options – not always cure but gentler ways to live with the disease while exploring the journey of dying. At various points along the way I've had feelings of anger arising very strongly.... but not the kind of anger you might be imagining. Generally people are railing against the loss of their loved one, feeling like a victim of the disease and the event called "dying", getting angry at their God, or the medical system for not having a cure, or fate, or at themselves for not living their life to the full. My anger is at something else... it's directed at the culture within which we live and die. The huge disconnection we generally have with the reality of what it means to be born, to live, and to leave this world. The cycle of life and death that is part of nature. Our disconnection from the realisation that WE are nature. The arrogance with which we live as if we have a right to expect a certain number of years, and because of that expectation, we tend to do all we can to pretend it's not happening when disease and death knock uncomfortably on our door. In order to meet this expectation, society and medicine have provided any number of props to support our denial, and to help us pretend to ourselves and to friends and family that somehow these distressing symptoms and the prognosis are all going to disappear and life will go back to normal. Unfortunately while the show goes on, in the world of chemotherapy and palliative care, tragically we're losing the star, but more importantly, we're losing the opportunity to be fully engaged with all the love in our hearts with the person we care so much about, in this extremely important stage of their soul journey. People keep encouraging the person to try this or that, to "do all that you can" to fight and beat the disease. Often when they know 100% that this will make no difference to the body's ability to heal. Apparently doing something, feels better than doing nothing. Unfortunately there is a nauseating predictability to the events which follow as everyone struggles to avoid saying the things that really need to be said, sometimes right to the end. It seems that my friend is now gently reaching towards this place where the real conversation can possibly happen and I feel great relief for her, whilst I also grieve her loss and disappointment. When hope is no longer present, her body is saying "no more of this" and her heart is lost in the world, where will she turn? Who has the presence and faith to walk beside her and hold her hand while letting go of her physical body at the same time? Not many, I fear. The tools of denial, fear, thinking positive thoughts and telling her she shouldn't feel depressed are not really what she needs. I remain open to a miracle, but in my experience these don’t come from thinking positive thoughts (another illusion that somehow we are in control). They arrive unbidden, delivered by Surrender and Grace. My beautiful friend is now moving into unknown territory and needs a fearless companion to walk alongside her. And this person has to be invited to come in to this space where only love is present, so my friend also needs to play her part. Consciously acknowledging the end of this earthly journey takes enormous courage and this is rarely found in the culture we currently embody. In these final stages it requires the daring to be the truth-teller or the shadow-bringer because of our strangely upside-down view of how life and death play out. We have moved so far away from our true essence, we seem to have forgotten much of who we are eternally. This companion is someone who understands that we're all part of nature, and that just like the trees we need to trust the process of letting go of the physical body in order to rest, review and contemplate rebirth in a new season or a new dimension. There is a cycle of continuity in which we play a small part... and sometimes that part lasts a long lifetime, and sometimes it's shorter. May we all be blessed with an appreciation for the life we are given ... and for the privilege of being open-hearted and alive at the end of life, surrounded by fearless companions.
Note: There are many working in the medical field and palliative care who do their best to support the dying process. They do this whilst surviving the collusion evident in our culture. May they all be blessed for the work they do, and for what they are able to bring of their true selves.