I'm reading
How the dying can teach us to live
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
How the dying can teach us to live
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
How the dying can teach us to live
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
25 February 2016

How the dying can teach us to live

The man letting go of life right before my eyes is teaching me how to live.

Written by Celeyce Matthews

This story originally ran in issue #46 of Dumbo Feather

I sit and listen to the liquid rattle in his breath as he lies dying in the bed before me. Each breath is an arduous heave, his chest muscles toiling to keep up the inflow of life. His eyes are half-closed and eerily still, his mouth slack, his skin pearlescent. I sit on the threshold of death with him, knowing that one day I, too, will pass through this intangible and inescapable gateway. This experience, this awareness, fills me with gratitude and appreciation for each moment of my life and connects me to every living being that has ever existed. This perspective both comforts me and enriches my life. It is a gift. The man letting go of life right before my eyes is teaching me how to live.

As a volunteer caregiver with the Zen Hospice Project, I’ve sat with this man through many stages of his living/ dying process. When he was still mobile, I walked with him as he shuffled with his cane in the tranquility of the Guest House garden, enjoying the sunshine and the lovely flowers and bamboo stalks. When his mind was still clear, I listened to some of his life stories of oppression, heartbreak, love and altruism, his gentle voice rich with gratitude, humour and pain.

When he became bedridden, I sat at his bedside while he fiddled with my hands, rubbing them and exploring their contours as a way to cope with his pain and find an anchor in his growing mental confusion. I fed him, helped bathe him and changed his diapers. I witnessed his anger and frustration at his illness as he threw his pills across the room. I received his sweetness as he expressed his gratitude with many quiet, heartfelt thank yous. These many moments of intimacy are a gift to us both.

Sometimes, a resident like this man is here for many weeks and deep connections form. And sometimes I sit at the bedside of an unconscious resident who dies before I ever hear their voice. In silence I sit and observe their breath and mine, sensing the connection between us, aware of the life and death in us both. I notice the myriad thoughts, emotions and sensations that pass through me, pleasant and unpleasant, and I let them go. I note the quality of light in the room, the lovely décor, and the personal artefacts that attest to the life lived and now lost to the person in the bed. I observe their face and body, taking note of how their life and illness have left their marks. I sit, present to all these things, and feel my heart expand to embrace every part, even the disturbing and the painful, the known and the unknown.

“Isn’t it unbearably sad?” people often ask when I tell them I spend five hours every week being with people who are dying. Sometimes it is very sad. Grief is an inevitable aspect of death. And sometimes it is sublime. Tears and laughter, suffering and joy are shared. Moments of boredom, inspiration, uncertainty, connection, beauty, raw fear and profound love are common.

The full range of life happens at the Guest House, perhaps more intensely as the imminence of death strips away any false veneers and opens the heart. This practice of simply being alive together in this vast spectrum of experience at the end of life stretches and strengthens my heart. No matter how fleeting the moment, no matter if we are complete strangers, no matter the degree of sadness, sharing in people’s final moments of life at the Zen Hospice has allowed me to embrace the full beauty and terror of living and dying.

Celeyce Matthews

Celeyce Matthews is a volunteer caregiver at the Zen Hospice Guest House.

Image: supplied by Zen Hospice Guest House.

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.