I am guessing that when most of you go away on a tropical vacation, you probably bring along some fun, light, reading material to enjoy as you lie on the beach sipping a Mojito. Me? I chose to read about the dying process; not the kind we normally associate with dying -you’ve lived a long life, done everything on your bucket list and are now ready to go kind- no, my idea of ‘light’ reading is to read about people who have to face death square in the face way before they’re ready to- often via terminal illness which involves much anguish, physical pain, and unbelievable suffering.
Yes, folks, this is how I spent one week of my ‘relaxing’ getaway to the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii- reading a book as thick as my head called The Grace in Dying: How we Are Transformed Spiritually as we Die by Kathleen Dowling Singh. And guess what? It turned out to be one of the greatest books I have ever read. Even stranger…I was sad when it was over as I found it oddly uplifting. Let’s just say my husband looked at me like I was from another planet and said kindly, “So your idea of a fun and relaxing holiday involves reading about people dying of terminal illness?” to which I replied, “When you put it that way, it does sound rather dark; but in my eyes, reading about people who are facing one of the biggest challenges life can throw at them, and finding the spiritual fortitude, and then ultimately, being transformed through the process, is mind-blowing and incredibly uplifting to me.”
Before I tell you more about this amazing must-read book however, I’d like to share the serendipitous path that led me to read it in the first place. Before I left for Hawaii, I was chatting with a woman I know about doing volunteer work in our community. I told her that I have a big interest in hospice work and that I think it would be absolutely incredible to work with people in the dying process. She remarked that it was odd I should bring that up, as she had just gone for the initial interview to volunteer at hospice. I was fascinated and we entered into an amazing discussion about the whole concept of palliative care and the hospice movement and our society’s increasing shift in how we view the whole dying process. She told me that there was required reading if you want to volunteer at hospice and wrote down the name of the book I just read. I promptly put my name on the library waitlist for this book so I could check it out. I was about number 50 on the list so figured it would be a while before I got my hands on it. I had plenty of other books on the go (I average 6 at a time), so put it in the back of my mind and flew off to Hawaii.
On our second day in Hawaii, hubby and I took a walk around the grounds of the condo complex where we were staying to check out all of the available facilities (I looked at the exercise room once and never went back, but felt strangely comforted to know it was there should I need it). Next to the workout room was a lending library-which to me is far more attractive then fitness equipment- and I perused the titles on the shelves-ignoring the Japanese section as sadly, I cannot read nor speak that language- and to my complete amazement, sitting there is the exact book I was just discussing with my friend back home that was on order for me at the library! The book about dying- I couldn’t believe my luck! I started jumping up and down for joy and tried sharing my childlike glee with hubby who for some reason, didn’t understand my particular level of enthusiasm for this genre of reading material. Oh well- his loss, my gain…
So I had a goal for the next week of my vacation- to read one chapter of this book a day until I finished it and then to write this article so I could share what I learned with you, my beloved readers. And being an extremely goal-oriented person, I was thrilled when I managed to do both during my vacation. And lest you start judging me, let me do it before you have a chance…
Yes, I am a self-confessed nerd and bookworm and yes, I have been accused throughout my life of being “too serious” and “unable to have fun”, but at this point in my life, I no longer give a hoot and fully embrace who I am dammit- being a book nerd and scholar-of-sorts- even when I’m supposed to be lying on the beach relaxing- gives me great joy, satisfaction, and a sense of purpose- just a side rant that needed to come out- thanks for listening. I feel a lot better now. Now let’s get back to the book…
Okay, so if you’re anything like me, you’re scared shitless of dying. I think most of us are and for good reason- we, as a culture, suck at the whole dying thing. Although things are changing rapidly, for the most part, death is something we try to shove away in a dark corner in our mind and try to avoid thinking about as much as possible. And I see why- it’s probably one of the freakiest and scariest things we could ever dwell upon. A big point made by Dowling Singh is that the experience of what happens when we die and after we die is the biggest mystery to all of humankind because once we find out the answer, we can’t exactly come back and fill the rest of our peeps on earth the details of what we can expect. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a therapist all these years, it’s this:
HUMAN BEINGS FOR THE MOST PART, LIKE TO KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. WE’RE NOT SO GOOD AT LETTING GO OF CONTROL AND HAVING FAITH IN THE UNKNOWN.
Maybe this line from the introduction will offer you comfort here as it did for me when I first read it:
“Dying is safe. You are safe. Your loved one is safe.”
Now, normally, I don’t trust what most people tell me; especially about the unknown. However, I have a strong inkling that the author, Kathleen Dowling Singh, knows what she’s talking about here, having sat with thousands upon thousands of dying people and counseled these souls and their loved ones throughout the dying process.
Without ruining the book for you, I would like to pique your interest in reading this masterpiece by summarizing it this way- what I learned from the stories and experiences of the amazing people in this book is that dying- even dying young of a terminal illness- can be an incredible right of passage, and ultimately, the biggest opportunity one can ever have of a spiritual transformation. I was incredibly moved and awed by the words spoken by people in the book who lay on their deathbeds in various states of illness, of all different ages, who managed to find beauty, peace, and even bliss near the end of their lives, regardless of how much physical pain they had suffered up until that point.
It did make me think about how the whole concept of death as a rite of passage and of spiritual transformation is very situation-specific and how one requires a certain amount of time to go through such an experience in the first place. For example, if one was to die suddenly in a car crash, I doubt there would be the time to go through such a process. Even in that situation however, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens in the incredibly short window one has between living and dying? Is there a sense of peace, bliss, feeling connected to something greater than ourselves perhaps? I would hope so.
What I loved about the book was a detailed discussion about how when we have the opportunity to prepare psychologically and spiritually for our own death, there occurs in every person the same phenomenon- a letting go of the ‘ego’ or what is often referred to as ‘the small self’; and an increasing awareness of our ‘oneness’ and a sense that we are all connected.
Also, I really appreciated how this book expands on the excellent work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross who pioneered the five psychological stages of death…outline here…and adds the spiritual dimension to what human beings experience near death. One take-away I got from reading this is that it is a great idea for each of us to have a solid daily spiritual practice while we’re alive to help us prepare for death some day. In particular, meditation with mindful awareness where we regularly take pause and simply experience this moment can greatly help us prepare for death. It made me smile as I read this because I am a very enthusiastic yogi and meditator and find that one of the things I look forward to most at the end of every yoga practice is Savasana pose, or “corpse pose” which in Sanskrit, literally means, “Dead body pose”. After reading this book, I got the wisdom of practicing a regular “mini death” in order to prepare us for the big one someday.