Tag Archives: sitting with the dying

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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Death Midwife

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a death midwife's portrait veiled by the last snow of the season.We look at things differently when we know it’s the last time. On an early morning last week, my driveway was exquisitely patterned with bright patches of snow. The last snow of the season, I thought as I photographed it and then photo-shopped it to veil a portrait of the death midwife who patiently waits for and watches the last moments of life.

“What does a death midwife do?” I asked Iona (a name I chose for her after we spoke).
“…hold a conscious awareness of the naturalness of death. Sit vigil at the deathbed—holding space and bearing witness. Provide accompaniment, non-medical support, and education for the dying and their loved ones in the final months, weeks and days of life,” she answered. “Holding space,” she said, several times. I had to look that term up. It means to make oneself entirely, wholeheartedly present to someone, offering unconditional, non-judgmental support.

Iona told me the story of the first person she sat with. It was a woman with end-stage Alzheimer’s who talked constantly but incoherently. For six weeks Iona visited her and listened without understanding a word, until one day, at the very end, in a moment of clarity the woman said, clear as a bell, “Those of us with wings can fly away now.”

“What did you lose and what did you find?” I asked her, because I always pose this question.
“When I do this work, all judgment falls away. It is such a relief to stand in a space that is completely neutral…there’s nothing to do, you’re just asked to be. It lets me be a kinder, gentler version of myself. I found my true calling.”

“What have you learned from sitting with the dying?” I asked finally.
“That one is living until one is dead. There is always a possibility of growth and transformation up ‘til the last moment,” she said, and “You die the way you lived.” Which gave me a lot to think about.

 

If you die the way you live, what changes might you want to make while there is still time? What would your own dying look like, how would you want to die?

 

 

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