Helping a Friend Die Well

I’ve had some tremendously helpful insights lately, like the widespread lack of discernment between, and confusing of the sensations of vulnerability and fear. (Simple test: Physical harm immanent? That’s fear you’re feeling. No immanent physical harm? The squirmy, exposed feeling you’re experiencing is vulnerability; a sense of the riskiness and fragility of life. It’s your instinctual inheritance of every bad thing that’s ever happened to a human being, but also every good one.) I was going to write about it for this newsletter, but something came up that took my focus and some of my time in the past week. I was watching a friend die and it is his story that needs to be told.

I had met Paul through his wife, Teresa, who first came to the Mesa Creative Arts Center something like 10 years ago. Paul was an attorney who advised me from time to time and had graciously volunteered to help me with routine estate matters after my wife, Kate, passed a few years ago in appreciation of what she had done for Teresa. Paul “lived clean” and been in great physical shape, training for and entering Iron Man events, competing in a combination of running, biking, and swimming. He was engaged in his community and had run for political office, not for personal glory, but because he really wanted to help.

I could tell something was wrong one time when I met with him, and I learned he had been diagnosed with cancer. As his cancer progressed, I offered him healings at home, which he found helpful and gratefully accepted. After Kate’s estate was settled, I continued to check in on Paul and Teresa to listen and bear witness to their all-too-familiar stories of hospital visits and chemo side effects, offering healings for them both.

While very well-known and active in his community, Paul seemed a very private man when it came to his personal life, and while matter of fact about his ordeal, I could tell how difficult and frustrating routine things were becoming for him during his treatment. The setbacks were becoming more frequent and serious. I made it a point to stop by more often, but sometimes almost a month would pass.

When I saw Paul right before Christmas, I was shocked at the change I could see in his condition. I knew he was going to die, but did not speak of it to him or Teresa. I might be wrong, I thought. I’d keep my mouth shut and prepare to make myself available to them if called upon to do so.

Paul’s condition gradually worsened, with more and more complications, surgeries, harsh drugs and runs to the ER. I had seen the same sad progression happen to my Kate and others who had developed the disease. I increased the frequency of my visits and helped Paul to release some of the unbalancing energies of radiation therapy, anesthesia, and chemo as well as general emotional stress. It did seem to help him and we both could feel him “unload” as I directed him as to what needed releasing.

By a few weeks ago, Paul had gotten so weak that when I stopped in he was no longer working at his desk or sitting on the sofa, but lying in a hospital bed in the living room of his house. While he was always glad to see me and appreciated the healing energy I was able to connect him with, my relationship with Paul had generally been more formal than what I experienced with Teresa. That began to change as his condition worsened and I brought my experience to bear. He needed help, comfort, and advice. This time I could be his advocate and he let me in to his personal world.

When it became clear that the medical professionals had run out of treatment options for Paul, I spoke with him about what might happen next. Teresa had looked into possible alternative treatments, contacted a holistic cancer clinic in Florida, and was waiting for the director to call her back. The logistics of traveling there for an extended period of time were daunting and the benefits still very much in question. Insurance wouldn’t cover the fees.

I was there when the clinic’s head physician returned their call. Teresa put the doctor on speaker and I listened as she donned the mantle of being Paul’s medical historian, meticulously recounting all of Paul’s symptom and treatment history. We all listened as the doctor then laid out a complicated, month-long treatment plan that involved a number of things I’d never heard of. At one point the doctor robotically recited a long list of connections between where cancers were located in the body and related emotional level issues of the patients like a proven fact rather than correspondence.

After the call, Paul and Teresa asked me what I thought about what the clinic was offering and I reminded myself to stay neutral. I emphasized that they had choices to make and that all choices have consequences. I told them that if they felt hopeful about the clinic’s offer, it could be doable to go down there. I suggested that if they decided to do so they would need to focus on Paul’s treatment first and foremost and let everything else figure itself out.

I also knew of the stress and strain it would cause for the whole family and the difficulty of travel with someone so ill. When they pressed me for an opinion, I told them that I was struck by how the doctor had spoken with such absolute surety about his proposed treatment. There were no “if’s” or “maybe’s” about it and that bothered me. So far, in my experience and research I have seen no one with an answer for cancer that works consistently. In the long run the reality seems that it’s hit or miss on a massive scale, no matter what the treatment used. I sensed Paul’s fatigue and knew he’d stay at home.

After Teresa left the room, Paul and I talked about death, and I saw great emotion well up from him as it stared him in the face as a real possibility, maybe admitting that to himself for the first time. I offered what I’d been taught about our spiritual nature, the metaphysics of crossing over, and what I’d observed when I’d been present to watch others go through the process in the past.

Paul wanted to live, and I watched him struggle with the thought of the alternative and what it might be like for him. I spoke with him of the difference between vulnerability and fear and how brave one needs to be to rest in openness to leaving their body and returning to pure Spirit. I talked of the Native American teaching that we die in the Spirit World to be born onto the earth and we die on the earth to be reborn in our true home.

In myself I saw that I had at first cautiously and then whole-heartedly opened to becoming intimately involved in the life of a man I previously had not known all that well, right at its end. I acknowledged my own vulnerabilities in the situation, and chose to open wider rather than retreating to distant emotional safety. After all, Paul was in mortal danger and I was not. I saw no alternative but to step in closer.

When I came again to visit a week later, Teresa had found a local clinic that was providing intravenous vitamin C and colloidal silver so Paul could be treated at home in the hopes that it might turn things around or at least prolong his life. He had been on yet another trip to the hospital since I had seen him to relieve painful symptoms from his failing physical body and the cancer’s spread. I once again put my hands on his feet to connect him to healing energy, speaking to reassure him, man to vulnerable man.

At that point Teresa confided in me that the doctors had told them Paul was dying and it might be a matter of weeks or months. I had been waiting for that shoe to drop, that elephant to enter the room. I talked with Teresa about my own experience with that awkward wait. Time might pass slowly, or take sudden unexpected leaps. Emotions would see-saw between wanting him to stay and his suffering to finally end.

I could feel the pent up frustration and grief from Teresa and their kids from the hands-tied-horror of watching their husband and father slowly slipping away after fighting so hard, long, and painfully for life. I was present when Paul’s family members came from far and wide to visit and recognized how difficult it was for all of them to deal with it. I saw the family avoidance patterns, but also the love they shared. I knew it was my spiritual imperative to stay close.

One day when I came to call a visiting nurse was there to help with Paul and there was a blur of activity. I paused in the doorway and as those with him finished up and moved away from the bed I stepped closer. As he had warmly come to do, Paul extended his arms to hug me as I leaned over him. “Hello, friend,” I said. “I couldn’t see who it was in the doorway,” Paul replied, “but I could feel it was a friendly!” He had noticed the love and Light I was hoping I brought with me.

In the next few days I got involved in my own work and let a whole week go by without stopping again to see Paul and Teresa. Last Monday she called me to tell me that Paul had entered a hospice phase, but was staying there in their home. She asked if I could stop by and give him a healing to bring him some needed relief. I told her I had a healing client coming that day, but that I would stop on the way back home from The Mesa.

I swallowed hard as I got out of the car and knocked on the door. I may have even let myself in when it wasn’t opened for me immediately as I had been granted that honor and privilege. When I saw Paul I was deeply shocked by how much he looked just as Kate did before her death. He had lost more weight and his cheekbones protruded. He was largely unresponsive, his once radiant energy shriveled. He had those same eyes that never closed, but didn’t focus. His mouth stayed open as he labored to breathe. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to be in pain and was relatively still.

I had to consciously stop and center myself to get over the absolute revulsion I felt at what I was confronted with. I admitted to myself that that was what I was honestly experiencing and that it made the dancing needle on my vulnerability meter jump into the “RUN AWAY!” range. I prayed it didn’t show. I knew it was human instinct for me to want to flee in the face of death, but that I could choose to be even more vulnerable and stay to help my friends. I could have left, but there was nowhere else for them to be.

As I sat giving Paul an energy healing, I recognized that I had a chance to not only help him on this important journey, but that I could help the rest of the family as well. They were all highly intelligent and from my observation over the years, emotionally private and reserved. It was clear that they were struggling with how to deal with their husband and father’s decline and their own push-pull vulnerability around it. I could imagine their thoughts: “Do I talk to him if he doesn’t seem to hear? Touch him? Leave him alone?

I saw the teachable moment and the gift of my experience that I could give my beautiful friends about the approaching death of a loved one. I held Paul’s hand and loudly told him that I loved him. I thanked him for being a good friend, devoted dad, and for all his good help with my legal matters. I thanked him for bringing his children into the world and for taking such good care of my sweet friend, Teresa.

I stroked Paul’s head and told him he was doing a great job preparing for the journey he was about to take. I thanked him for teaching all of us by his fine example so we could learn vicariously and not yet have to go there ourselves. I told him to “pick his time” and that when his relatives and his Guides came for him not to hesitate to go. I softly sang a Lakota prayer song for him. Here and there I’d see a faint response.

Fascinated, I sat there by Paul’s bedside for almost 3 hours that day. I could feel his consciousness come and go as he “visited” the Spirit Side. Occasionally he would reach forward weakly, as if trying to grab something in front of him. When I’d hold his hand I could feel starkly unusual energies come and go. He was being visited as well, and when he could still speak had told Teresa of seeing her deceased father and grandfather, as well as his own dad. As I sat, I would feel spirits touch or pass through me. I reckoned that they were doing so in acknowledgement of my compassionate presence, my awareness of them, and my Light—just paying their respects so to speak. I felt honored.

When I came back the next day it was easier for me to relax and focus on Paul. I continued to talk with him and could tell that occasionally he knew I was there. I did this in front of Teresa and sometimes when his children were present in part so they could see that though largely unresponsive he was still their same husband and father and that he needed them to not shrink away and just be their loving selves. It was a matter of shifting perspective away from the cruel parts of the process and onto each precious moment of life together.

I told Teresa that I had long ago read that our hearing is one of the last things to go before we die. One time one of the kids coughed in another room and Paul was obviously startled by the sound. I pointed out that this was confirmation that he could still hear and that the Paul they all knew was “still in there,” only in a greatly altered state of consciousness. I noted the fact that he’d had nothing to eat or drink for a couple of days already and how that would make even a healthy person feel disoriented. Teresa was grateful for that perspective.

The next day on my visit I told Paul about the lovely spring weather we were having. I told him about how beautiful it is on the Spirit Side and how that was his true home. I told him he’d soon be leaving the heaviness and pain of his physical body behind. I reiterated that I loved him and that his family did, too. I commented on what an amazing time it was for Paul to leave, given the recent solar eclipse and approaching equinox. What a poignant juxtaposition it was for him to die as Nature was just coming back to life.

It might have been that day that I reminded Teresa to do or say whatever she needed to for her conscience to be clear about Paul later on down the road. In that vein, I taught her to use the Soul-to-Soul Connection technique to communicate with Paul on that higher level since he could no longer speak. I walked her through the process.

As I left that evening Teresa saw me to the door. I gave her a hug and she told me something that stopped me in my tracks. “Thank you for modeling this for us,” she said. “When you leave I talk with the kids about how you interacted with Paul.” I told Teresa how surprising that word, “modeling,” was to me, and that there is sadly no handbook for what she was going through. Yes, I admitted, many books have been written about living through the death of a loved one, but one can have but a poor imagination of it until being right there in that disorienting moment. I reminded Teresa that no matter what happened to Paul in the next few days, that her life would continue. “There’s no manual for that either,” I added. “You’ll write that story as you go.

I had a million errands to run the next day and stopped early in the morning to see Paul. I had wondered if he would last through the night when I’d left the day before, but he seemed a little stronger. No, I thought, it won’t be today. I visited with Paul with Teresa by his side and could see her fretting over many things. I did my best to remind her that what she was seeing was something that not many people got the honor to witness first hand. Even fewer do it consciously and learn its intricate lessons.

I told Teresa that death is an important part of life. I said that if it were Paul’s birthday instead, that she’d know just what to do. “I’m not saying to bring in balloons or anything,” I gently offered, “But you can do things to make this the best possible experience for Paul. I didn’t do a great job of that for my first wife and vowed I would do better for Kate. I’ll never know exactly how she received it, but I did every loving thing I could think of and my conscience is clear.” I suggested how important it was to make Paul her focus for now and not succumb to her own grief. There would be far too much time for that later.

Later that day I went to get a much needed haircut and told Jamie, my stylist and Mesa friend Paul’s story as she snipped. I took my glasses off as I usually do when she cuts my hair and trusted that she was doing a good job. When she was done, I put them back on and said, “Yeah, that’s me!” Jamie asked me if I wanted to see the back of my head and handed me a small mirror. I spun the chair so that my back was to the big mirror and looked in the small one to see the back of my body.

You knew to turn around and look back,” Jamie exclaimed, “Not every guy does.” I told her that others before her had trained me well, handing me the mirror and forcefully spinning me around. (I’m an Empath. I heard what they wanted me to do without them saying it.) Then Jamie told me a story about a guy who had walked into her shop one day wanting a haircut who had never been in a salon. She told him that she needed to wash his hair first and pointed to the chair in front of the shampoo sink. He went over, paused for a moment, climbed up with his knees on the seat, and leaned over facing the sink. “He’d never seen one before and didn’t know what to do,” Jamie laughed.

Look at that,” I said, “People don’t even know what to do with something as commonplace as a shampoo sink without some kind of reference frame. No wonder we don’t know what to do when someone is dying. Where would we learn?” It was a blatant reminder of the sacred nature of the work I was doing for Paul and his family. I had seen the opening to step forward into that void and could do nothing less. It honored the sacrifice Kate made to teach me and so many others by my retelling of her story.

When I went back to see Paul the next afternoon he was weaker and I recognized the signs of his impending departure. His hands were cold as he began final retreat from his body. He was rattling as he labored to breathe. I told Teresa this and warned that he might become physically agitated when his time grew near as his body instinctively fought to keep itself alive.

I also shared Jamie’s story about the shampoo sink and told Teresa how I’d used her and Paul’s story to make an educational point. “People have seen too many movies,” I suggested. “That’s not a true picture of what you’re seeing here first hand. It may be hard to see this right now as the beautiful gift that it is.” This is how we continue to honor those who have lived and died, by telling and retelling their story in teachable moments, changing hearts and minds so that loved ones draw closer instead of avoiding those dying.

Teresa shared with me what Paul had requested for his remains and plans for his memorial service. She had remembered the little cakes with inspirational words from Kate’s memorial ceremony based on the cards she would draw and give away right down to a week before her death, and wanted to “borrow” that idea. I told her Kate would be honored and that I’d send a photo of them later on that evening.

Teresa told me that there was an inside joke between Paul and their youngest daughter along the lines that if he ever got old and senile to push him off a cliff. She’d reply that she’d shoot off fireworks and plans were already in place to conclude Paul’s eventual memorial gathering with pyrotechnics. How fantastic, I thought.

I left that afternoon knowing that I might not see Paul alive again, saying that I might stop back later on my way home from The Mesa. I got involved in a metalworking project and didn’t leave until about 8pm when my intuition told me not to stop. I suppose I had a sense that Paul would leave and wanted that time to be for his family alone.

The next morning I got an email from Teresa thanking me for the cake photo and informing me that Paul had passed the evening before. When I stopped in on my way to The Mesa to pay my respects, I was greeted by her children. They told me that the family had surrounded Paul as he died and it was all very loving. I was glad to see smiles on their tear-stained faces as they told the story.

Teresa, as it turned out, wasn’t home at the moment. In an amazing act of duty, devotion, and grace she was, of all things, at the funeral of a woman Paul looked after in her later years, standing in to speak for her man. I could not imagine going to anyone else’s funeral the day after my own spouse had died, but that is her strength.

I left and went for a walk on the Panhandle Trail to clear my head, observing the signs that spring had arrived early. Yellow Coltsfoot blooms dotted the sides of the creek bed. A couple of orange and black Question Mark butterflies flitted about. A stray Forsythia was growing green leaves. It felt good to be out with my camera again and to feel the awakening force of life out of doors. I contemplated Paul’s peaceful departure as I hiked along.

I stopped back to see Teresa that evening and came in to find her and the kids gathered in a circle of chairs, sharing their feelings from their first day without their father. I looked over and saw the now empty hospital bed where I had visited Paul just one day before, looking strangely empty. I said that I felt like I was intruding, and just wanted to see that Teresa was OK since she wasn’t home earlier.

I happened to mention that I had gone out on the trail and one of the kids remembered me saying I might do that. I was surprised at their interest and enthusiasm considering what they’d just been through as they asked how my walk had been, focusing cheerfully on me from their solemn moment. I told them about what I had seen, adding that I had photographed an Eastern Bluebird along the way. “Oh!” Teresa said, “They’re my favorite.

Before I left, I turned my attention to how the house and its inhabitants felt to me and was relieved to find it all seemed peaceful, loving, and calm. I only stayed a few moments longer and when I got home I sent that photo to Teresa. I have seen the Bluebirds throughout the winter in the spots where I know to look, but felt that this one showing herself to me at that moment was an acknowledgement from Nature and maybe from Paul himself that life goes on.

I was there for the family at the memorial tonight and will be present for them in any way I can in the days and weeks to come. The funeral home was absolutely packed, with a line snaking around to get in. Teresa led the proceedings eloquently, lovingly, and perfectly, but it looked like a thunderstorm’s downpour was going to cancel the fireworks. Then during the reception an announcement was made that the show would go on as planned. We stood in the pouring rain and watched a dazzling display in Paul’s honor. What a fitting send off for such a bright light!

I have written this story to honor Paul and his family, and so that we may all learn from his journey and remember to live life to the fullest. I bless all of you who have gone, or will go through what Teresa and her children have and are. I encourage all of us to defy that squirmy feeling inside and step fully into our vulnerability, our openness to emotional injury that makes us recoil at the mere mention of death, as that same vulner-ability (From the Latin, “to wound”.) is exactly what allows us to fall in love, be creative, walk on fire, and dare to see that we are not really all that different or separate from each other. Yes, we can be wounded, but vulnerability also lets us heal.

About Brad Silberberg

Brad Silberberg, director of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA (Pittsburgh area) is an artist, holistic healer, spiritual leader, and change agent.
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