Dear Angel, I want the end to be easier...
My aunt and uncle both died in the last two years. We were very close and I spent a lot of nights by their bedsides. At the end of both their lives, they suffered physically, emotionally, and mentally. I know we don't really have control over most aspects of our dying process, but surely there's a way to avoid some of the brutal suffering I had to see them go through. The crying and moaning, the indignity of body malfunctions, the wishing to die but having the process drag out for so long. Why does it have to be this way?
We all hear stories about peaceful deaths. Do peaceful dying hacks exist? How can I be one of those people whose end of life looks more like slipping off into the night?
Wanting Smooth Transitions
My heart feels your longing. I know the specific pain of watching those you love most suffer hard as their bodies die.
I almost wrote, "I"m sorry you had to..." but the truth is, I'm glad you got to be there to witness it. By no means am I glad they suffered, or glad you experienced this pain. I'm thankful, though, that they got to have you with them during some of those excruciating moments. It meant that in those moments, they were not alone. In those moments, Love was in the room and when Love is in a room, it's palpable, even if unspoken. Who doesn't want to die in the presence of love, especially when pain and discomfort are non-negotiable?
I made it a practice a few years ago to never again say "have to" or "had to", but to replace it with "get to". Even in the face of something as agonizing as being at the dying bedsides of my grandparents, who suffered tremendously. Even in regards to 40 hours of labor to birth my son, with countless aspects going sideways. I didn't have to go through the pain, I got to. Not just because I got the gift of a child when it ended. I got to experience 5 more months of physical pain after he was earth-side.
Here's the thing: in every moment, we are either opening or closing, expanding our energy or contracting it. When I contract or close, I experience significantly less felt connection with life, and with the people sharing life with me. I'm here for connection, for every single drop of life I can allow myself to open and be saturated by. So I continually readjust myself to align my actions and words with that desire.
If I believe that I "have to" do anything, my thoughts imply that life is happening to me without my choice or consent. If instead I practice meeting every moment with "I get to", especially those really shitty ones, I can sincerely remember that the wonder and love in this human experience is worth it all. When it doesn't feel like it's worth it, I take that as a signal to mean I'm disoriented.
When I orient my entire life towards experiencing connection (with Self, others, and the nature that surrounds me every day), life starts to feel more crisp, happening sometimes in a slower technicolor, and the bittersweet and bizarre wonder of it all is not lost on me.
My task is to continually remove everything that is in the way of me experiencing real connection.
Now, to create a different end of life experience for yourself...
I won't go so far as to say I know any "hacks", but I will talk in terms of preparation.
1. Imagine that you are in a long, drawn out end-of-life scenario. Consider what matters most to you and how it could be designed for. Consider what may be a non-negotiable and how you could adjust your expectations to meet what arises.
For example, I've heard a lot of people focus on not wanting to die in a specific place, like, "I don't want to die in a hospital" or "I don't want to die at home and leave my family living in the house". But what if a hospital is the only place you can be monitored at the level needed and kept comfortable? Or what if home was where you could relax enough to peacefully surrender to the process?
To design for the first example, consider elements that might make a hospital experience more comfortable. When I birthed my son, I took to the hospital electric candles, a wall tapestry, a bluetooth speaker, a long playlist on my phone, essential oils, and a diffuser. I asked that people who entered the room not turn on overhead lights unless it was absolutely necessary. I asked that the TV be left off at all times. I created our environment at the level of control I had by preparing for it in advance.
To design for the second example, have a conversation with your loved ones who live in the house. Like, "I know that if I died at our home, it could be very heavy for you living here when I'm gone. I also know that for some, dying at home allows more comfort and peaceful transitioning. I don't know what will be best for me at the end, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the possibility of me staying home."
You must prepare in advance, like, now. MOST IMPORTANTLY, write down what is important to you, and what specific wishes you have, then give a copy to someone who can advocate for you.
2. Read A Beginner's Guide to the End by Dr. BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger. I wish every human alive would read this book. Even if you're not into books, you can flip to random pages in this one and get guidance at every turn. It's written as practical advice, in a warm and conversational tone. For me, it felt like I was sitting at the table with a wise best friend who just happened to be able to walk me through everything from preparing and planning ahead to dealing with illness to getting help along the way to the time when death is near to the after death part, like grief, eulogy writing, and celebrating a life.
This book will help you ask yourself the right questions.
3. To come full circle, I will close with this:
Practice Opening. Do it now, every day, in the face of everything. Refuse to let pain or fear of future pain, in any context, close you.
If you practice every day then maybe, when you are in your final chapter, when I am in my final chapter, we will be less inclined to resist the natural order of things. Pain and discomfort are guaranteed.
Suffering (resistance to what is) is not.
I'll practice with you.
Note, dears: I am not a licensed physician or therapist. These letters are not intended to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice. They are intended to offer some love and understanding from a human who has invested her life in understanding how to convert pain to power and separation to connection.