Being with the Dying

Being with the Dying

“Being witness to a death is a profound experience for everyone-for family members and loved ones and for health care professionals who have cared for the patient-and certainly for the person who ministers spiritually. When you have sat vigil with a dying soul, you are forever changed. You have experienced a great mystery.”

Megory Anderson, Attending the Dying: A Handbook of Practical Guidelines, Morehouse Publishing 2005.

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Megory Anderson, who recently died, has written a large volume on being with the dying as well as a short pocket-sized handbook. Many people come for spiritual direction related to the death of a loved one. Someone significant has died or is about to die. Often the death is very imminent. If there is time we can go over some of the very concrete directions Megory Anderson gives and then gift them the small handbook.

My experience is that often there is not even time for friends to digest the handbook which can be so very helpful. Frequently the person or caregiver is so overwhelmed that even reading is difficult. It is similar to my experience with hospice. My father-in-law was put on hospice care the day before he died. We so often wait too long before asking for help or accepting the reality of the situation.

Anderson teaches us so much. Attending the dying is like the privilege of being at a birthing. It is a sometimes-painful celebration of a new life. I especially try to reread her section about creating a sacred space. We talk to the family about clearing clutter from the room, bringing in sacred objects such as devotional icons, prayer beads, photographs, maybe even childhood books, reading favorite stories, even childhood poems. Favorite music, a lighted candle, a favorite quilt, fresh flowers from someone’s garden remind us all that something special is happening here. We come to be with the person dying, listen to them and hear their story. Conversations should be directed to them. My experience is always to speak to the dying as if they can hear what we say.

As the death approaches, I know of many who midwife their loved one into a new life by singing favorite hymns, reading the psalms, taking turns saying prayers, and performing rituals for the dying from their traditions. After the death, saying prayers and preparing the body can be one last loving ritual for family and special friends. My father-in-law grew magnificent roses. The night he died, our family took rose petals from the flowers in his room and scattered them over his body before walking his body out to the funeral hearse.

This book is invaluable to anyone who is attending the dying. The author describes preparation for death, the death process, and what to do afterwards as well as how to react to the very unusual behavior of well-meaning family and friends. We so rarely have a guidebook for life’s more difficult journeys. This is one.