Tag Archives: fear of death

Preoccupied with Death and Dying

Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene depicting her vision of a good death.The biggest ant I ever saw was flat on its back on my kitchen counter. It was waving its little limbs frantically when I went to bed that night too tired to deal with it. In the morning the intrepid ant was still there. When I put on my glasses, I could see it was still pawing at the air, but with somewhat less vigor.

And while I stood over it, wielding my mini-vac—my preferred method of bug removal—I considered how I might instead move the ant to a grassy spot outside. This would not be easy. Small creatures with many more legs than I have always kinda creeped me out. Bug phobia. It goes back over half a century. I’d once made a 24-inch-long paper mache ant for a grade school science project, partly to face my terror.

More recently, partly to face another fear, my terror of death and dying, I attended a workshop where we wrote about how we wanted to die. For a good death, I wrote, I would be lying in lush grass, under the open sky, near a forest with ferns. With friends nearby, I would listen to the sweet sounds of my favorite bugle calls, Tattoo and Taps.
“You’re pretty preoccupied with death these days,” a friend accused. Yes, I agreed. Because, maybe if I made a project of it, I could lose my terror.

But back to that morning, with the ant. It was writhing in slow motion, making me queasy about facing breakfast—and suddenly it stopped moving.

I stared at the lifeless insect. All I wanted was to suck the critter up into the depths of the dust-buster, to get rid of it. But I couldn’t do that after spending months preparing to sit vigil and help the dying. Hoping there was still time for the bug’s last moments, I used a teaspoon to sweep it into an empty yogurt container. And holding it at arm’s length, I ran outside and gently shook the poor creature out onto the grass.

The ant slid out, landing on its feet. It took off creeping. For a moment I watched it climb shakily from blade to blade of dewy grass. I watched as butterflies and dragonflies flew by. Until it hit me—I’d saved a life. Because of my preoccupation with death. Maybe then I felt just the tiniest bit better about bugs and death in general.

 

What creeps you out? What does a good death mean for you?

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Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her eyes watching over her dying daughter's face to illustrate sitting vigil with the dying.Always squeamish about facing death, after years of volunteering solely with the bereaved through Hospicare and Paliative Care Services, I finally attended the workshop for how to sit vigil with the dying. The main idea of sitting vigil is to listen, stay present, and direct your energy and compassion to the one who is dying. To practice this, toward the end of the training, the participants paired off for an exercise where we took turns playing each of two roles, the Thinker and the Listener. First my partner sat, thinking of something. I, the Listener, was to simply watch her and be with her. Silently. This, I imagined, would be the harder part. But it went smoothly as I observed attentively, breathing in sync with my partner for what seemed like forever, until the time was called and we switched roles.

I intended to fill my time as Thinker with memories of my daughter who died seven years ago. Marika having tantrums, rolling her eyes when she disagreed with me, laughing, her hoop earrings and iridescent eye makeup…. But shortly after I started thinking, something unexpected happened. Instead of remembering our sweet and sour interactions, I was transported back to our last two days together, when I sat vigil with her, watching for the tiniest twitch of her brows. Staring at her face to remember her features forevermore.

Suddenly something in the exercise went screwy. My partner seemed to be me. And I felt like I was my daughter. Looking up into brown eyes that waited patiently with me, I became Marika, lying still, waking occasionally from sedation to find my sad loving eyes fixed on her face. The rest of the world disappeared beyond the bubble that contained our two sets of eyes.

Over the past seven years, I’d never thought of those last days from Marika’s point of view. I’d never considered that my being there, caressing her with my eyes, might be a comfort to her. Before this, I couldn’t have imagined what a gift it was, for us both, to just be there together at the end.

How could I possibly try to illustrate this? I don’t know. But I do know, now, how I will sit with the family members, friends, or strangers I am privileged to be with in their final hours.

 

Have you ever sat vigil with a dying person? What gifts can we give to someone who is dying?

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