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Conscious Dying: A Guide to a Healing Transition

Embarking on the journey…

Usually, a person has a good sense that death might be just around the corner. There might be dreams of loved ones that have passed before us. There might be a strange feeling that it’s time.

I encourage you to arrange for a person to die at home whenever possible. Far away from the sterile and cold environment of an ER, the dying and their family and friends can best experience this unique gift of love, wisdom and depth in the comfort of your home.

Dying is not a “disease” that needs to be healed by doctors. It’s a natural process that can be embraced and learned from. Death is not a “failure” but like birth can become an opportunity that makes us pause in awe of life’s genius. Accompanying a dying person helps us release the fear of dying. As a result, we let go of the fear of living and discover the courage to live life to the fullest. Life is meant to be lived, not just to be survived.

The dying teach us to stretch into the unknown, to expand into our knowing, divine selves instead of recoiling in fear and contract into our smaller selves. In “Dances with the Four Winds”, Alberto Villoldo writes: “Dying consciously is the way to leave this world alive.”

Death is a great adventure, just like birth. And as for every journey, preparation is needed. We need to ready ourselves for the realization that a beloved person is leaving her or his body behind. All of us are spiritual beings that chose to go through a human experience. We are NOT just our bodies. Our bodies are wonderful vehicles to navigate this earth – but our existence doesn’t end just because our vehicle breaks down. To me, death is a friend that accompanies us from the moment of our conception, it’s our gateway to the paradise home we all come from and return back to, whenever we’re ready.

As we are nearing “Death Awareness”, we become more delicate, sensitive and wise as our spirit being prepares to leave the physical body behind. We need to sleep more and enjoy drifting in semi-sleep. As our eyesight diminishes, our inner vision of the bigger picture becomes clearer. While our hearing seems to get weaker, we remember to listen to our inner world. As we slowly let go of the physical world, we experience heightened states of awareness. We sense what goes on around us, even though we might appear to be sleeping. The veil between the worlds is lifting. The hushed conversations about funeral arrangements outside the room might as well be spoken right to the dying person: they are acutely aware of our actions and even thoughts. So prepare yourself to share honestly with the dying person, as you are transparent to them anyway. They see into our hearts.

This is a wonderful opportunity for family and friends to allow their own inner healing. Long-suppressed feelings of hurt or loss might surface, as your heart opens. Don’t fight them off but open up to these emotions. Being vulnerable and honest with ourselves provides the best invitation for the dying to relax and be themselves. The body of the dying knows exactly what to do. This is not the time to ignore the body and “tough it out”. This is the time to listen and learn. If the family can arrange for it, it’s best to slow down the demands of our busy work lives for a week and take time to witness and share the transformational process.

Often during the last week, a dying person suddenly finds a new strength and vigor. They want to meet and greet visitors, they talk about their life in astounding clarity. Symptoms lessen. Life in its wisdom gives us this last energy spurt to say good-bye and come to terms. This is a good time to facilitate a “life review”. Inviting the dying person to honestly share memories of their life is a great service to them. They might remember great achievements that remind them of what made their life valuable and important. They might revisit painful experiences and voice long-held grudges or regrets. It’s important to listen without judgment, holding a loving, compassionate space for the dying person. Creating a safe space for the dying to share their deepest feeling means also not wanting to “change their mind” or “save them”. The dying complete unfinished business in their own timing, no need for our judgment. Eventually, they find ways to ready themselves. Sometimes this process stretches up to their very last minute.

The hours around dusk and dawn become the most productive times for journeying beyond this world for the dying. It can be helpful to ask the dying person about their dreams. They reveal how far along in their process they are. Images of travel and of happy reunions with loved ones who have passes before are common themes.

By acknowledging our wounds we give ourselves permission to heal. We stretch our hearts and transcend painful experiences into love, forgiveness and personal growth. This includes forgiving ourselves. We rise above our differences and weave those many strands of opinions into a healing, colorful fabric.

Preparing to die can sometimes be a slow, consuming process and laughter and lightness is a welcome relief. Important advice for the care-giver: accompanying the dying process is as rewarding as it is exhausting. Self-care is very important during this time: go get a massage, soak in a spa, eat and sleep well. Your body is taking a heavy blow, even though it doesn’t appear this way. Help your body carry you through this challenging time. Walk away for a few hours, live your life. After mingling with “ordinary situations” for a few hours, you can return refreshed to the bedside, without experiencing the dying person as a burden.

Maintaining perspective helps to not just “die alongside” with the beloved person. Arrange specific signals of communication with the dying after they have passed. This is no joke. It will help both the dying and the person accompanying the process to embrace continuity and take away fear. If anything, keep good humor about it and stay open to the possibility. Nearly all survivors admit (when asked without judgment) that they have felt the strong presence of the deceased at some point.

We might find inside ourselves a mothering love for the dying, a need to be close to them and fulfill their wishes with unconditional love. We intuitively sense that the dying regresses to the same state in which s/he entered this world: the world of a newborn. Cuddle-toys, soft blankets and cosy PJs satisfy the heightened sense of touch. Meaningful objects can be made into a shrine. The newborn, like the dying, need open minds and hearts as they journey far.

The safety of unconditional love makes this possible. Roles in life are stripped away from them, initially by leaving activities and possessions behind – but eventually also by leaving even memories, loved ones and in the end their own physical body. Disengaging from their usual interests is necessary for the dying to let go. Bringing flowers and pictures might not be met with the same enthusiastic response as before. This can be a disheartening experience for loved ones who mean well. It is crucial to not take this behavior as rejection. The dying is engaged in their natural process of letting go and needs your acceptance and support.

It is a special gift of love to allow the dying to fly and not force them to “hold on” and endure for our sake. Sentences like “All your affairs are in order. Everyone’s taken care of. This is a good time to let go. You are safe. There is nothing you have to do. Relax into the process” are helpful for the dying. Don’t expect answers and confirmations from them at this point. They have already withdrawn deep within themselves and don’t want to be disturbed in their process. For some people, a lot of physical touch is uncomfortable at this time, as it repeatedly brings them back to their physical connection with this world. Others feel calm and comfortable with a light tough. The dying will let you know. Their body reacts directly to all impulses, without guilty-conscious or shame. This time needs to be about them, not about the care giver. Do your crying with the dying earlier on when they are still able to engage you. It’s not helpful to share your grief and tears with the dying in their last hours. A steady, loving heart is the best company.

I encourage you to find out from the dying beforehand how they want to be made comfortable. Do they want soft music? What kind? Which smells do they like? Would they enjoy a soft hand and foot massage? Generally, in all cases it’s good to create a sacred, softly lit space of calm. The presence of plants is important, the warm glow of a gentle night light. If possible, sit bedside with the dying, holding a loving space, without claiming much of their attention. They experience your presence in great detail, talking and entertainment is not always necessary.

A word of comfort to all of us who just can’t be around 24/7: no one ever dies alone. As the spirit departs from the body and crosses onto the other side, it is welcomed by the loved ones who passed before. In the days leading up to the transition, the dying visit “the other side” repeatedly in their sleep and familiarize themselves with where they will be going. For this reason, fear decreases over the past days and acceptance settles in. The dying understands that s/he will be welcomed by friends and family. A vague knowing sets in that there is continuity beyond death. Despite our many human fears of hell and punishment, there is nothing scary on the other side. Once we pass into the light, there is only deep love and acceptance.

As we consists of the elements of Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Spirit, these five elements withdraw at death in a specific order:

The first to withdraw is the element Earth. The dying sleeps more, doesn’t want to watch TV anymore and feels a certain heaviness. This is when we don’t want to eat any longer. It just seems an unnecessary hassle. Soon after, the Water element withdraws. The body starts to dry out, nose, mouth and tongue become dry. The “death rattle”, a raspy loud breathing rhythm, sometimes sets in. With damp sponges and lip balm, a care giver can provide comfort during this phase. Giving IV-fluids at this point only confuses and prolongs the natural process. Fire is the next element to withdraw: we sense a change in temperature. The dying is often cold, their life fire is burning out. More blankets and warmth makes the dying comfortable.

Eventually, the dying takes their last breath, marking the withdrawal of the element Air.

Once the person stops breathing and the heart stops, death has occurred according to western medicine. But in fact, the most prominent element withdraws over the next few hours: the Spirit energy is released from the crown chakra, the top of the head. The spirit gradually comes to understand the transition and its new “location” or lack thereof. For that reason we recommend to not move the body for a few hours after “death”. Even after the person has stopped breathing, dying is still in process. Our loving, calm presence helps the transitioned spirit to come to terms with the change. Open the windows in the room. It is helpful to speak with the presence you might feel. To tell them that now they are free of this pained body which no longer serves as a comfortable home for them. That you feel their presence and will continue the loving relationship. That communication between our worlds IS possible.

Once the breathing has stopped and you have had the opportunity to be with the body and say your good-byes, it’s a good time to notify the funeral home or mortuary. We help you create a sacred space. The first three hours after death are a sacred time when the soul slowly leaves the body and a new balance is reached. Also, this is the best time to experience the spirit of the departed in the room with the body. Loved ones have an opportunity to experience continuity beyond death and a new bond is forged. We honor the body as the house the beloved inhabited for a lifetime – but there is the realization that the person who has passed “is still around”.

In a healing, respectful atmosphere, we care for the body and show you (if you so wish) how to wash it, anoint it and prepare a beautiful viewing bed using simple and effective cooling techniques (rather than toxic embalming). This will allow you to keep the body at home for up to three days, so that the closest family and friends can truly come to terms with the death. This home wake is very helpful for close family and friends to fully understand in their bodies and souls that their loved one has moved on. Three days are also the time – as many religions agree – the soul needs to fully understand and embrace the transition they have just experienced.

I encourage you to arrange for a person to die at home whenever possible. But if death has occurred at a hospital or anywhere else, it’s a healing experience for the family to bring your loved one HOME!

For thousands of years, families have arranged Home Funerals as the best way for family and close friends to come to terms with death. It is easier to express and share painful emotions in the privacy of your own home. If for whatever reason, home is not an option, often a beautiful viewing room or chapel can be arranged for a viewing and a ceremony for friends and family.

Once a death occurs, these are some of the services needed:

• Contact the local hospice and/or local authorities to pronounce the death. Failing to do so may prolong the process of paperwork.

• Coordinate the death certificate and permit for disposition and transfer the body to your home or location of your choice (if death occurred elsewhere).

• Caring for the body in natural and sanitary ways.

• Preparing a viewing location, inviting close family members and friends, coordinating music, food and catering, setting up flowers, candles and making memento cards. Alternative funeral homes or friends can help you to set up a shrine and invite people to bring objects that symbolize the life lived.

• Once the visitation and services have been completed and the closest people had a chance to say good bye and grieve together, the disposition may proceed. The funeral home or mortuary can arrange for transportation to a crematory for cremation or cemetery for burial and negotiate their requirements. If you and your family and friends want to be present for these event, this can often be arranged.

• To allow a larger community to remember and celebrate a life well lived together, you can work with your alternative funeral home and friends to arrange for a personalized good-bye party, a memorial service or attended burial.

The process of dying and the three days following the death create a sacred time and space. After the mourning and the healing, now it’s time to let go and celebrate!

No matter in what stage of your life you are – it’s never too early to befriend death and plan to experience it as a fearless adventure.

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