Beautiful Death

A Beautiful Death

I was going on a 7 day residential workshop in Santa Barbara near LA, where I would be studying and practicing relational Gestalt psychotherapy with a focus on “Welcoming the Suffering Stranger’ proposed by Donna Orange, a New York analyst who was one of the facilitators. We all had read her book with the same name before going and were in the process of thinking about how our therapeutic and daily practice involved such moment by moment receptive actions. My friend and colleague Janey and I had planned for 5 years my attending this residential (this was her 14th visit) and I was staying with her in Los Angeles for a few days before and after the 7 day event. I couldn’t attend in years previously because of work commitments – as I had run a Gestalt training institute for 15 years and it had closed the year before freeing me up to travel in April.

Before I left Australia I had heard that her 96 year old husband of 36 years (called Richard) was ill and in hospital. He had been having dizzy spells and couldn’t stand up to move around. He had been given a blood transfusion which had rocked his delicate balance of health so much that his lungs had started filling with fluid and he had trouble breathing. He improved in hospital and was transferred onto a hospice and had been there for a week when I arrived. It looked like his condition was stabilising and even improving enough so he could come home soon. We left on a Thursday while he was in expert care at the hospice.

Janey received several calls every day from Michael his son who was a doctor, and Peter his other son a Marketing executive, from Richard’s doctor and from his secretary Anne, all monitoring his condition. By Saturday it seemed he was not improving. By Sunday there was a downturn and they held a family conference over the phone and decided to bring him home on Monday. They were hoping he would survive until the next weekend after the residential was finished. I was finding the constant reports about Richard very distressing for me. I was there to learn, but also as Janey’s friend I was there to support her, and we discussed each piece of information as it came in. She felt confident that Richard would survive until the weekend after the residential. She felt a strong spiritual connection with him and had decided that he would wait for her to return before he died.

On Monday he was transferred home and his condition declined dramatically. His heartbeat was low, his blood pressure terrible and his doctor thought he would die within 48 hours. Meanwhile I was urging Janey to go home and be with him. If the situation was reversed and it was my husband dying I would want to be with him by his bedside. I was prepared for her leaving me at the residential and while I wasn’t so keen to be alone there with the 43 other delegates I had been torn by guilt also for Richard’s family who were with him at home and feeling they must be angry with me for taking Janey away – along with her love for her group and her stubbornness to wait it out – she is very attached to me and we have had good times travelling together before and we had been looking forward to this for so long. She received about 20 calls that day which was a rest day from the residential and we had gone for lunch and shopping in Santa Barbara, so I shared most of the calls listening to her sympathising and understanding her family’s concerns.

The tension was building on Monday night and finally I offered that I come home with her to support her with his family and in his dying. Janey was Richard’s 6th wife and he had 4 children by wife #2. There were 3 men now in their 50’s – Jerry, a lawyer, Peter and Michael, all very professional and caring and a unit with Richard while Janey had always felt a bit on the outer. The other child Rachel lived in Colorado and would be coming back for his funeral. They had all lived with their Mum and used to see Richard occasionally on the weekends and then off on big adventures in France for the holidays. Richard was born in France and was outrageously extrovertedly French. Bravo!! He was a wealthy film producer as well as a therapist and had an amazing art collection of many Picassos, Renoirs, Chagalls in a beautiful house in Brentwood that was held in trust for his children to be passed on when Janey dies. Janey had welcomed his children as family but never had any children of her own. There was a tentativeness about her with them and from my perspective the overwhelming bond between them was a shared spiritual connection. Richard had run a meditation and spiritual practice group for 40 years and had led meditations every second Sunday of the month for his many followers as part of that practice and his family were all involved in it. His assessment of others involved an energy monitor and seven rays practice formulated by Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society to gauge the essential nature of people and he strongly believed in the power of various meditations including Tibetan mantras and visualisations. In the one time that I spoke with him he told me about his meditation practices and stories of his experiences with the Dali Lama’s teachers in India and Bhutan and the influence of the Akashic records.

Anyway I felt Janey needed support to get home and at about 9pm that Monday I offered to leave the residential and go with her and then return as soon as Richard had died. Michael (the doctor son) called at 10pm to say Richard may not last the night…..and Janey decided to leave. So we started packing and were on the road by 11pm, driving through the velvety dark, rushing to get home before Richard passed away…it was like flying through the skies! We were speeding along in a car that had a hole in the muffler and exuding stinky fumes worried that the car may not make it and so tired from the stress of things. Finally we reached home at 1am and came inside to the room where Richard lay breathing slowly, surrounded by his 3 sons and Amanda (Jerry’s wife) two grand-daughters in their 20’s and Anne, all with tear stained faces and very grim. The atmosphere felt quite serious and even hostile as there was the sense of “You should’ve been here hours ago” and “Why weren’t you here?”. I was tired and went to bed. I felt like I had brought her home.

Janey was up all that night and the next day and the next night. She slept a few hours here and there but not much as we were all patiently waiting for him to go. His sons were pleased she was back and they had many conversations together. They had to leave to work during the day so they came and went and sat with him when they could – working by his bedside. I sat with him too and a range of feelings came and went. What an exciting man to have developed all this in his life: this lovely, dynamic and professional family, the gorgeous house, the magnificent art collection, the spiritual group. Also anger came up around him being a crusty old bastard that he chose to die in the middle of the residential and brought us back to be with him. How the dying pull people in! But what an amazing family he was leaving behind – so spiritually aware and open to receiving me.

By Wednesday morning his doctor couldn’t work out why he hadn’t died. His pulse was 8 beats a minute, his blood pressure was 67 over 27 which is really low. She was amazed he could survive on so little vital energy. Peter said that he had been a meditator his whole adult life and that his body was used to surviving on little oxygen. Meanwhile I was torn between staying and going. I thought Richard would die earlier and I’d be back at the residential by now. Also the longer we stayed away the more my group would have evolved beyond where I was at and I would miss out and be left behind and it would be difficult to re-enter the group.

So on Wednesday morning Richard had not died and I was working out how to catch the train back to Santa Barbara. I had been emailing Lynne Jacobs the organiser of the workshop to let her know about Richard and us, and also my friend Lynette who was in my work group. How wonderful to have a life-line to that other world! As I’m looking at the internet for bus and train times Richard’s doctor tells us he would probably die that afternoon. Janey shot a look of concern to me and I could see that 2 people leaving her on one afternoon may be too much so I said I’d stay that day and definitely leave the next morning.

We waited and sat with Richard reading him well wishes from his meditation group, some people had dreams about him and we were telling him those – one of which said he couldn’t see and needed his reading glasses so Anne put them on him for a while. There were many people coming to check in and say “Goodbye” to him, or to sit with him and linger – sometimes up to 5 or 6 people in his room at once. Janey was busy dealing with these visitors and I made tea and salads and cooked dinner and did the dishes in the background.

That night was the most beautiful experience we had together. From about 8pm we were all in Richard’s room – the 3 sons, Anne, Amanda, Janey and myself – meditating together, being reflective, reminiscing, laughing, feeling sad, playing Richard’s favourite music – Bach, Mahler, Edith Piaf…the boys’ mother had been a concert singer and they played her version of “Summertime” – it was very soulful and his boys had tears in their eyes. Janey put on some Tibetan monks singing mantras and blowing massive Tibetan horns and crashing cymbals to help push his spirit on! Blaaahhh! Crrrsh! We were dancing in the living room like wild Demchogs….then back to be quiet at his bedside. Janey found some of his spiritual poetry and read it out and Peter had some evocations that Richard had written and read out the first line and we all repeated and then the second line and we repeated and so on. It was a very engaging and connecting experience for me. Janey then lead the singing of the Gayatri mantra and we all joined in….so deep and so beautiful! He stopped breathing at 11:57 and his heart beat for the last time at midnight. How wonderful that his dragon spirit soared at that portal in between the days! What timing! What a great send off he had! Surrounded by loved ones joining together in a “love soup” for him. All of us integrated into a cohesive loving family.

I want a death like that!

As his spirit left his body I prayed that in his energetic release I would receive some of his great confidence…that I could get up and express myself more fully and more in the moment – which is my growing edge and I was working on that aspect of myself at the residential. I have no problems expressing myself in one on one situations. I can deliver lectures and talk in front of groups when it is a prepared speech with aplomb. While I was the Director at Sydney Gestalt and I had lots of experience lecturing and presenting in groups but I still had difficulty being spontaneously expressive in front of groups feeling quite shy and tongue-tied at times. I know that I shame myself to avoid the others and I aim to remain connected with me and with them somehow. I wanted to feel more grounded in my body and generate a lightness of being that flows out verbally.

The next morning we went back to the residential (in another car), arriving at lunchtime. As we walked into the compound people came and hugged us and welcomed us and Lynette came over and invited us to sit at their table. We joined Lynette and two friends and felt very included. During lunch various colleagues came over and embraced me…I have never been so warmly received by a community! After lunch we had our workgroup and the leader – Donna – took 30 minutes to integrate me back into the group. I told my story about the events surrounding Richard’s death and my feelings and concerns about the group leaving me behind and maybe feeling that I had abandoned them. The group members were so interested in my story I had a sense that instead of being left behind it was like a parting of a river and now the waters were rejoining. The group had left a chair for me in the circle and my emails had been read out to them all. Such a relief for me and a delight to be so welcomed. Truly a deep process of the experience of a shamed traveller being welcomed back. Donna pointed out that I had originally had been in a good place like a host to Janey’s family process in dealing with death but along the way I had become caught up in something else partly as it took so long and I was rather torn to be there… I had become a hostage to the situation.

At the concluding ceremony of the residential on day 8 all 50 people sit in a circle and have the opportunity to speak if they want to. I was reluctant to speak and thought I wouldn’t say anything but as most people in the circle spoke I was forming something reflecting my disjointed journey over the past 8 days. What an intense time. For me it was around the difference between reading a book about being welcomed, and then the actual experience of being a tentative traveller welcomed in…the experience of which was so much richer and deeper for me….it connected at a cellular level in my body and would be with me forever. I also had the image of all of us taking this warm and welcoming experience from the residential and going out back into our communities and seeding areas of welcome for suffering strangers….spreading out the attitude by our actions…creating a rippling out effect. I was surprised with myself that I spoke so eloquently making it up on the spot….letting my thoughts speak. Some colleagues commented later that it was an impressive last comment. Wow!
Thank you Richard!!! Thank you Donna and Lynne!! Thank you Janey and Lynette!! Thank you Richard’s family!! Thank you residential colleagues!!
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