Death is a transition for the dying -- and for those left behind
I recently stopped by the house of our friends Jack Heckelman and Linda Bergh for an evening of singing and music. Like the others gathered there, I was part of an extended community the two had created over the years. Jack was up and sitting with the group, weaker than when we last saw him, taking oxygen but present and alert. Linda told us that her husband had reached a turning point that day. He'd moved from holding on to life to preparing himself for impending death. Jack died four days later.
When Jack was diagnosed with cancer last fall, Jack and Linda decided that they wanted to share their journey with family and friends. They looked upon his dying as a natural event in life and wanted to be open about it, rather than being in denial. So friends and family were linked by special gatherings to support Jack and Linda on the journey, and by a Web site where the process was shared with friends around the world.
Six months later, as Jack's cancer spread, he and Linda began to welcome death with intention and gratitude. Before he and Linda took their last trip together, Jack completed his ethical will -- a tradition of stating the values and beliefs that the dying hope will live on among those they leave behind. As friends came to visit or to join in a night of singing, they asked Jack questions: Are you afraid? Why not? What do you see happening to you after you die? Jack gladly answered, understanding their curiosity about such a huge transition.
"Those conversations were remarkable," Linda says. "They shouldn't be unusual, but they were." They shared some of these thoughts on the Web site. Linda also wrote about the challenges of being a caregiver. And in the weeks just before his death, she candidly shared with Jack her struggle to reconcile her roles as caregiver and spouse -- telling him the truth and working things through even when he was dying.
Their openness was partly a reflection of the fact that both were well-acquainted with death. Jack had nursed his first wife of 40 years for more than a decade as a degenerative muscle disease slowly took her life. At first he turned his engineer's mind to creating an accessible mobile home in which they could travel despite her illness. By the end he was feeding her through a stomach tube and communicating with blinks and hand pressure. Throughout it all, his passion for the earth and desire to be of service to it remained strong. So did his taste for adventure. He celebrated his 75th birthday by skydiving.
After falling in love with Linda, he just as enthusiastically uprooted himself to start a new life with her in a new city. Though she was much younger than Jack, she too had endured some of life's hardest lessons. I met Linda 17 years ago when she was my son Sam's kindergarten teacher. In 1995 her husband died suddenly of cardiac arrest, a shock for her and for their only child, Kirsten, then 16. A year later, Kirsten and a close friend were killed in a car accident. Linda, a passenger in the car, was the only one to survive, albeit after a long and difficult recovery.
Some people are darkened by unbearable grief; others become incandescent. Linda is one of the latter: her presence, her humor, her honesty, her joy and sadness all pouring through a shattered heart. But how?
I found clues in She Would Draw Flowers, a book of Kirsten's poems and drawings that Linda published after her daughter's death. Even apart from the tragic circumstances, Kirsten's poems are truly beautiful testaments of love -- for her friends, for her lost father, and, most poignantly, for her own vital young self. It's a marvel to follow her thoughts as she confronts the trauma of her father's sudden death and transforms it into a deepening joy for life and its possibilities. Kirsten was a gifted artist. In one of the final poems in the collection, she concludes, "So, I carry you in me, not as the fading memory of a father, but rather as a growing, glowing child, until we become one, and I can let you go."
The words that helped Kirsten also helped Linda endure what is often said to be the most crushing bereavement, losing a child. "As a mother, each day facing this unimaginable loss, I question how I might remain connected to my beloved daughter while leaving her free to journey on," she writes in the introduction. Kirsten's drawings and poems were among the few tangible ties left to her daughter, she adds. "But the profound path of her inner transformation shared in these poems has also served as my guide for letting her go."
After the accident, Linda says, she realized that everything in her life was now open. And so, when she and Jack married, they shared openly their process of living and relationship with those who were interested. "It became something so simple and so rare," she says, "something we are all so hungry for: conscious community and conversation. Aren't we all growing and struggling in our relationships?"
When Jack and Linda fell in love, it was cause for celebration for an extended community. Their wedding at a friend's farm included a visit from a dragonfly that flew onto Jack's back and stayed there. The couple created a ceremonial arch using branches from a tall rose bush that Linda had planted years before in the rain, at a time of great grief, on the first of Kirsten's birthdays she spent alone. Now, both the dragonfly and the roses became symbols of the new happiness Jack and Linda found together. On each anniversary they re-exchanged their vows in the garden next to Kirsten's rose bush.
As word spread among us that Jack's life was nearing its end, a niece agreed to build his casket. She felt an urgency to finish it, though others assured her there was plenty of time. As it turned out, Jack's last act before going to bed the day before he died was to receive his casket, lined with rainbow silk as he had requested, and carved with maple leaves and dragonflies.
He grew restless in his final hours, with Linda curled sleeplessly on the bed beside him. "It is enough," he finally said, answering a question he'd posed earlier to his sister, wondering aloud if he'd know when it was time to slip away. "Honey, you can just go home," Linda told him, and he grew calm. She left his side to doze for a few minutes on the couch. When she went back half an hour later, Jack had died peacefully in his sleep. Shortly after that, Linda says, she was feeling deep regret that she hadn't been with Jack at the moment of his last breath. Suddenly she heard inside herself an unfamiliar voice saying clearly and firmly, "No regrets." In a flash, she realized that to live and die without regrets had become Jack's life mission.
The community began to gather to help wash the body and prepare for a three-day, around-the-clock vigil during which people took turns sitting in the living room with Jack's body, displayed in the coffin embellished with dragonflies. There was singing and reading and meditating and playing music; there were tears and laughter, and anyone who wanted to could drop by at any time. It was strangely comforting and peaceful to be there. Those who hadn't been sure about coming didn't want to leave. It was time to be together as a community and to say good-bye to Jack.
There was a moment early in the morning the day after he died when, Linda says, "I felt so deeply at peace, as if something was breathing me. My body and the air were one thing. There was just the quiet and my presence in it. And that peace has stayed for me to tap back into when I get anxious or sad."
Though the hard realities of paying bills and planning a new life without Jack are often with her, so are these moments of grace. "I want to give a sense of that place to everyone, a sense of that inner quiet that just is," she says. One way she anchors that place in herself is by beginning the day with a poem or passage that embodies the qualities that she wants to cultivate in herself. For the year before his death, Jack and Linda recited together a verse written by Rudolf Steiner that begins, "Quiet I bear within me . . ." Now Linda says the St. Francis prayer: "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace." Through intention and repetition, "the words become cellular," Linda says. "It is such a simple gift, but so powerful."
A few days ago, two months after his death, on the anniversary of her marriage to Jack, Linda went out, alone, to Kirsten's roses. She was repeating her wedding vows when a dragonfly lit on the bush she'd planted. "I have never seen a dragonfly in our garden before," she says. "And I don't care what logic says about all of this. Love is not logical. I believe in whatever created that dragonfly in that moment. I believe in the rainbow that can hold the joy and the grief as one. And I believe that we can internalize all those on the other side in this life. They are always with us, and we just have to open to them."
What is a good death? When I put that question to Linda the other day, she listed three components: lack of fear, openness to spirit, and love of community. After a moment she quietly added that, whatever our circumstances, those same qualities lie at the heart of a good life.
Nina Utne is chair and CEO of Utne. You can visit Jack and Linda's Web site at www.caringbridge.org/mn/jackheckelman/history.htm. Kirsten Savitri Bergh's book She Would Draw Flowers is available through Steiner Books (www.anthropress.com).
Death and Grieving Explored in Print
Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time, edited by Cyrus M. Copeland (Harmony, 2003). In recent years the eulogy has gone from being the province of the clergy to a literary form delivered by family and friends. "People saw Cher eulogize Sonny Bono and thought, 'I could do that,'" Copeland says, and, for better or worse, his lively anthology will make them more eager to try. Copeland's 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit (Algonquin) is due out next spring.
Unattended Sorrow by Stephen Levine (Rodale, 2005). A well-known author and counselor, Levine attends to both body and soul in this beautifully written meditation on recovering from grief.
Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions by Kelly Bulkeley and Reverend Patricia Bulkley (Beacon, 2005). A theological scholar and a Presbyterian minister explore the power of dreams to offer insight and solace to those on the threshold of life's final challenge.
Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth by Tulku Thondup (Shambhala, 2005). Tibetan Buddhism has a long and rich tradition of viewing death as the passage to new life, as Thondup's guidebook for the living and dying explains.
-- Laine Bergeson