Days before my mother-in-law Karen died, she said to me sitting on the edge of her bed, “I am going to teach you about death and dying, I am ready and I am not afraid.” An accepting peace permeated the room with no fear or unrest. In her final hours, her breath became shallow and she gently let go of her life.
As a childhood cancer survivor, I had spent years walking a tightrope between life and death. The fear followed me long after I was well. Witnessing Karen’s death was a catalyzing experience. Because Karen wasn’t afraid, neither was I. Rather than backing away from death, I leaned toward it. I came to see death not as a threat, but as a natural step on the human path. Not long after Karen died, I felt moved to become a chaplain and enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education.
In my many years as a chaplain working with the sick and dying, I walked with hundreds of patients and every single one offered a lesson. Some, of course, resisted death till the end: “I have so much left to do,” one middle-aged cancer patient told me. “It isn’t time yet.” Others came to wonderful epiphanies: “I finally understand,” said an 86-year-old with lung disease. “It’s all about love. That’s all that matters. I love God, my family, friends, and I love you.” Her heart was wide open. It softened and expanded my heart, I felt love and perceived a soft, luminous glow surrounding her. Some were almost comical in their insights: “I’m okay,” said one 90-year old hospice patient, “I must say I’m curious. I am not afraid. I know there’s more. Maybe I should have fear? But I don’t!”
These are the lessons the sick and dying can teach – if only we’ll listen. The best antidote to fearing death, I’ve come to see, is witnessing it. The best teachers about life are those nearing its end. By their openness to embrace life and death, they can open spaces for us to understand what it means to be fully alive. How to be more accepting, curious and loving and live with a wide open heart.