Death Receives Us in Love
When I lived in Huntsville, AL, I co-owned a successful massage therapy business with Judy Castrichini, an amazing woman who is a force of nature. She took me to places I was reluctant to go in my own work. These places changed me forever and left an indelible mark on my spirit.
One of the places she dragged me to, kicking, screaming, and weeping, was that tender place right in the heart of the fire: working with people who are facing their mortality and human frailty.
In my late 30s I changed careers from working at a desk in front of a computer writing software to working on-on-one with people. This was scary for me. It still is. From the beginning of my massage training, the dying sought me out.
When I was still a student only halfway through my training and before we’d even discussed things like this in my training, I was asked to drive out to rural Alabama and give a massage to a friend of one of my teachers, a strapping giant of a man who was dying of advanced lung cancer. What if I do something to hurt him, I asked? Not having this training yet, I read up on how I could safely work with this man and not harm him. I was terrified. And still, I went.
When I got to his farmhouse, he was laid out in a hospital bed in the kitchen, jovial and comfortable, breathing supplemental oxygen from a long trailing plastic tube connected to an oxygen concentrator. When my mother’s mother had been ill, she’d had a series of huge oxygen tanks in her bedroom which constantly bubbled through a container of water to moisten it. A nebulizer. The quiet bubbling of that little clear vessel was a constant background counterpoint to every visit with her there in my aunt’s house.
My client was happy and clear. His family was tense and morose. This is the dynamic I often found later in my practice: the dying move into acceptance more often than not. The family hangs on, terrified of this impending momentous change to their family system.
As I worked gently, my client laughed and boomed: “give me a massage, man! You won’t hurt me, I’m dying!” His daughter, washing dishes at the kitchen sink, burst into tears and shouted at him, “daddy, don’t say that!” He calmly responded that what he had said was true. He just wanted something to help him feel better, something to cut the boredom of lying in that bed ready to meet his next adventure.
I was stunned and shocked, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to comfort them both, to give them what they needed in that moment. I stayed silent and kept working, being as mindful as possible.
This appointment shook me. I hoped never to have to do this again. Ever.
A year and a half later, after I’d graduated, gotten my license and quit my software development job, I accepted a position as massage therapist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight fitness center. During my first week there while setting up my tiny massage room, I received a call.
“Are you the new massage guy?” an older man’s voice said.
“Yes, my name is Jeffrey.”
“Great. We’ll be there Wednesday at 1:30.” click.
I had no idea who this man was. He hung up before I could tell him that I had a client during that time, and he didn’t leave a return phone number. I made way. When they showed up I discovered that his wife, Peggy who was to be my client, had something called PSP, or Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. PSP presents similarly to Parkinson’s Disease, but there are no effective treatments yet. What I didn’t know then was that this syndrome/disease progresses quickly after onset. Peggy lived about two years after our first meeting.
A retired government nurse in her 70’s, Peggy had been quite an athlete up until our first appointment. After each session with her, I closed my therapy room door and wept. She had great difficulty turning over on the massage table, and her angry husband, a retired NASA engineer, had to help her dress and undress. Later in our therapy relationship she fell more than once.
Death had come visiting.
Shortly after this, Judy landed a therapy contract for our business to provide massage to Hospice patients at the local huge non-profit Hospice organization. I was, again, terrified. My first Hospice patient was to be my greatest teacher.
I saw Ms. F on an almost-weekly basis for a period of almost a year and a half. At the time I didn’t know that this was an exceptionally long Hospice stay; most stayed only a week or two, at most.
Ms. F was suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis. Because she was pretty immobile and in a motorized wheelchair, the most I could do was to massage her hands, neck, and shoulders lightly. I used the acupressure I knew, which gave great relief. The massage helped her to rest more deeply, sleep through the night, and to be on lower doses of pain meds.
The drill was that I would check in with the nurses after each visit. Sometimes they scheduled their home visits just after mine, so I could talk in person. I can’t say that I was much better at being able to be present with her through the agonizing decline of her body while still retaining an intact mind; I cried in my car often, too.
After several months, one day she mentioned that her husband had been coming to visit. I asked the neighbor caregiver about this, and she told me that he’d been dead for over thirty years. I thought this odd. As the next few weeks passed, she mentioned more and more dead family members, and even a family pet that had passed. When the nurse came that day, I said that maybe Ms. F had been hallucinating.
“What did she say she is seeing?” she asked while fixing me with a penetrating stare.
I mentioned the dead family members. And I said that maybe the pain meds were causing these ‘hallucinations.’
“Oh no, hon. She’s just getting ready to pass. They all do that” said the nurse. “She’s got two, maybe three weeks now.”
Of course this was complete and utter bullshit. Or so I thought.
About three weeks later I called ahead to announce my visit. When I got to the house, I knocked, announced my name and walked through the back door and into the kitchen. It was as if I had stepped into a bowl of illuminated honey. I passed through something tangible and into a place that felt amazing. The quality of the light was extraordinary. I perceived all of this deeply in my body. There was a sort of hum in my head. The atmosphere was dream-like and just beautiful. I had felt this once before when stepping across the threshold of an ancient cathedral in Europe. It just felt so beautiful.
What is going on in this house today? I wondered.
Ms. F wasn’t in her chair in the living room. I called again, and the caregiver appeared from down the hall.
“We’re down here today.”
She led me to the bedroom where Ms. F lay unconscious in a hospital bed. Her breathing was labored, close to what I now know to call a death rattle. Once you’ve heard this, it is unmistakable for what it is. The beauty and intensity of the energy in this room was unbelievable. It was so light and loving. The thick honey quality of the air was even stronger in here here. I gave Ms. F a very light massage on her hands, arms, neck, and shoulders. Her breathing calmed considerably and she visibly relaxed. She died about two days later.
A few years after this I began my deep shamanic training in Psychopomp work. Psychopomp is Greek for “soul guide.” A Psychopomp accompanies a soul as it goes on its journey, opening doors, smoothing the way, and creating the most beautiful conditions possible. Often this journey is from a living body to its next sacred destination. Training for this work involves the study of what happens when we die. It’s some of my all-time favorite work to do. It’s always filled with great beauty, love, and tenderness.
Thanks to the gift that Ms. F gave me, I was able to witness and participate in a perfect example of an easy, good death where everything unfolds simply and with great beauty. The honeyed Light that I stepped into was coming from the presence of the great compassionate Angelic Beings who have assisted souls in the process of transition for eons. The gateway to the Light was wide open and I was standing right in it. I’d been given the opportunity to bathe in its radiance and beauty. That was a deep initiation and one of the defining moments of my life. I hope to be able to experience it again.
The other day I found this story in my Facebook feed about a Hospice palliative care physician Christopher Kerr in Buffalo, New York who has documented thousands of cases of ‘visits’ from dead family members of those who are dying. Dr. Kerr also has a lovely TED Talk about this:
I’m so glad that this information has been so thoroughly documented by a phsyician, especially a skeptical one.