How To Sit With A Dying Person
I was maybe twelve years old when my best friend’s aunt killed herself. She was angry. During a fight with her partner, she stomped across the living room with the gun in her hand. Her black army boots carried her into the backyard where she pulled the trigger against her temple. When we got the news, I was sitting on my best friend’s couch. We were probably playing another rendition of Free Bird on Guitar Hero — our middle school favorite if you exclude The Sims.
I remembered her aunt: her long, brittle brown hair; the meekness of her personality; the kind look she’d exchange before ducking into her trailer in the backyard for long stretches of time.
My friend’s mom got the call. Before I could figure out what to say to my best friend, I was in the car with her family, going to the hospital. I sat in the back and stole secret glances at each of their faces. My friend stared out the window. She was more like my sister. We told each other everything, yet now I had no clue what to say. I couldn’t even reach out and touch her arm. Stuck.
The rest of that afternoon is a haze to me now. Over a decade later, I’ve realized I still haven’t found the right words. This writing is more me asking the universe, and all of you in it: What can you say to someone who’s dying, or dealing with a death?
I was speechless again today. It was four o’ clock and the woman I care for (I take her to doctors appointments, errands, etc.) got a call. A smooth British voice poured over the voicemail. It sounded like someone you’d hear in a movie or on the news.
“So and so is very sick. Call me if you want to know more. 9-2-5 — ”
We both knew what was meant: Go now if you can. She didn't have to say it.
We walked into a small, dark home a few blocks away. My naturally cheery disposition melted instantly into a combination of sullen glances and staring at the floor as I handed them the candy we brought. Two other women about the same age as the one I care for (over 70) and a young man (must be her son, I thought) were sitting by a swollen woman sleeping in a hospital bed in the living room. A nurse with dark chocolate skin — a contrast to all the pale people in the room — sat listlessly in a rocking chair by the door. She looked at the T.V., which was playing classical music and rotating “Did you know…?” questions about Bach and Mozart. She was with hospice.
The woman I care for — let’s call her Joan — nearly changed her mind about coming here, twice in the five minute drive.
“I don’t know what to say,” she kept panicking.
I tried showing her a Ram Dass video on death, but that didn’t work. I tried telling her there’s nothing you really can say, just showing up is important.But I knew that was a cop-out. Deep down, maybe there’s only really one thing to say: don’t be scared.
Wouldn’t it sound absurd, though, coming from me? How can a 24-year-old claim to a 75-year-old person that she knows anything about death? Seeing what people go through at that age, I wonder if I’ll be able to walk the talk once I get there… if I’m lucky enough to get there.
I’ve had friends my own age face mortality too. That best friend I told you about earlier? She has stage four cancer now. There is no stage five. And most days, I have no idea what to say.
To tell my close friends and even strangers not to be afraid of death doesn’t feel like it will do any good. It doesn’t feel like my place. But I believe we as a society must grapple with our fear of the end of our time on this planet and make peace with it. Why did we come to want so much anyway? Why can’t we be happy with what we’ve had?
In the past, only religion has managed to calm the panic of infinite egos facing their finite reality. With the promise of everlasting peace, some people can handle death and, as they say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “go with grace.” But like Christopher Hitchens, I’m not the type of athiest who wishes they could believe those fairytales but simply can’t. I think the belief in an everlasting ego or heaven is part of our problem. It’s why we haven’t faced this question of what to say. Religion, or some form of fairytale, has always filled the void.
Zen Buddhism shows promise in this realm. Its wisdom doesn’t necessitate the belief in a higher power — no sky fairies needed. Ram Dass, a rockstar in Zen circles, offers insight on the topic. I couldn’t find it in the nick of time for Joan. But maybe it will help you now.
How To Sit With A Dying Person — Ram Dass Style
This is their death. Not yours.
Be a rock for them to lean against, a loving rock.
Don’t pity them or be emotional.
I couldn't help but notice Joan as she sat with her friend, who was falling in and out of consciousness, interluding with death. Joan looked over to her friend’s husband as said, “It’s so terrible. I just can’t remember her this way.”
I couldn't help but cringe on the inside as I sat just behind the two of them. As hard as Joan was trying, her inability to withstand the profound silence of the moment threw her into breaking the fourth rule. She was being emotional, and not so much pitying the dying woman as she was pitying herself, reminding me of rule number one: It’s their death. Not yours. What Dass means is don’t try control things so much, to make things turn out how you would like them. Just let them be, love the person with all your soul, and let them die in peace.
Have a rule to add or want to amend? Leave a comment below.