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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5 thoughts on “Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

  1. Pingback: Afraid of Dying | ANYTHING'S POSSIBLE - EVEN JOY

    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Now THAT is lucky. I don’t imagine many of us get to say that these days. It is such an amazing thing to “wrap up” a loved one’s lifetime by being there to see them through to their last breath. Cheers, Diana.

  2. Beryl S Bissell

    My father died alone in a nursing home for which I have a zillion regrets. I remember how his eyes followed me out of the room when I left. How his hand (holding a rosary) reached out to me. I must have been turned toward him that I remember those movements so well.
    My daughter’s murder remains an ongoing heartache, that I wasn’t there to be with her, hold her, comfort her. She must have been so frightened. Though I knelt for hours with my dying husband, my head was bowed in grief at the moment he died. I was there with my mother when she died, holding her hand, my daughter next to me. I’d wanted mom to know how much she was loved. When I told her she’d been a wonderful mother, she spoke her last words. “I tried so hard. I tried so hard.” Those words still break my heart.

    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Yow, Beryl. Your heart has followed a lot of loved ones out of this world. I guess you know how “a good death” doesn’t always work out the way one might have hoped. When the parting moments have not taken place in a warm glow of surrounding love, I guess we need to deal with the ghosts of regret, heartache, maybe even guilt. I hope that maybe you are many steps ahead of me in a mission to make friends with death. It won’t be managed or tamed, but death is not the enemy. As for the witnessing, the sitting vigil part – we have to remember that often a dying one will wait until everyone has gone, and he or she is quite alone, before the surrendering or flight can take place. I wish you peace.


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