Friday, April 1, 2011



I was once present at the deathbed of a friend. She was a lovely young woman, a mother of two children. The priest who helped her to die was also a friend. He knew her soul and spirit. As it became apparent that she would die that night, she became frightened. He took her hand and prayed hard into his own heart, asking to receive the words to make a little bridge for her journey. He knew her life very deeply so he began to unfold her memories. He told her of her goodness, beauty and kindness. She was a woman who had never harmed anyone. She always helped everyone. He recalled the key events of her life. He told her there was no need for her to be afraid. She was going home and there would be a welcome for her there. God, who had sent her here, would welcome her and embrace her and take her so gently and lovingly home. Of this she could be completely assured. Gradually, an incredible serenity and calmness came over her. All of her panic was transfigured into a serenity that I have rarely met in this world. All her anxiousness, worry and fear had completely vanished. Now she was totally in rhythm with herself, attuned and completely tranquil. He told her that she had to do the most difficult thing in her life. She had to say farewell to each member of her family. This was extremely lonely and difficult.

He went out and gathered her family. He told them that each of them could go in for five or ten minutes. They were to go in and talk to her, tell her how much they loved her and to tell her what she meant to them. They were not to cry or burden her. They could cry afterwards, but now they were to concentrate completely on making her journey easy. Each one of them went in and talked to her, consoled her and blessed her. Each of them came out shattered, but they had brought her the gifts of acknowledgement, recognition and love; beautiful gifts to help her on her journey. She herself was wonderful. Then he went to her, he anointed her with the holy oil and we all said the prayers together. Smiling and serene, she went absolutely happily and beautifully on the journey that she had to make alone. It was a great privilege for me to be there. For the first time my own fear of death was transfigured. It showed me that if you live in this world with kindness, if you do not add to other people's burdens, but if you try to serve love, when the time comes for you to make the journey, you will receive a serenity, peace and a welcoming freedom that wioll enable you to go to the other world with great elegance, grace and acceptance.

It is an incredible privilege to be with someone who is making this journey into the eternal world. When you are present at the sacrament of someone's death, you should be very mindful of their situation. In other words, you should not concentrate so much on your own grief. You should rather strive to be fully present to, with and for the person who is going on the journey. Everything should be done to completely facilitate the dying person, and to make the transition as easy and as comfortable as possible.

I love the Irish tradition of the wake. Its ritual affords the soul plenty of time to take its leave. The soul does not leave the body abruptly; this is a slow leave-taking. You will notice how the body changes in its first stages of death. The person does not really leave life for a while. It is very important not to leave the dead person on his own. Funeral homes are cold, clinical places. If at all possible, when the person dies, they should be left in their familiar surroundings so that they can make this deeper transition in a comfortable, easy and secure way. The first few weeks after a person dies, that person's soul and memory should be minded and protected. One should say many prayers for him or her to help on the journey home. Death is a threshold into the unknown and a person needs much shelter as he or she goes on that journey.

Death is pushed to the margins in modern life. There is much drama about the funeral, but this often remains external and superficial. Our consumerist society has lost the sense of ritual and wisdom necessary to acknowledge this rite of passage. The person who has entered the voyage of death needs more in-depth care.

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