I have learned that time like form is a shifting perception. Any moment can be rich and incredibly full. Many times I have watched families sharing connections with a dying loved one that clear a lifetime of pained communication. Years of hurt or estrangement bridged with a few words, a touch, or merely a presence. Equally I have seen a moment traumatize for what I realize will be a survivor’s lifetime.
Time both speeds up in its potential for growth and change and slows down in the savoring of senses, or in a recklessness of remembered stories.
Perhaps the most startling is when the stories take on an hallucinatory nature and become the “work” or labor of dying. A tapestry of conversations with those who have died occurs in a “between” space that weaves past, present and future dimensions. Glimpses, visions, voices… strained, gentle, restless, finishing.
In Celtic world view there is definition of “thin time” that describes grief both in its anticipation and experience. It is a blurring of edges … what I have heard described as having one foot in this life and one beyond. It is a limitless space that keeps the dying connected as it prepares the way for transition or transformation. Likewise this space also allows a continued connection for the bereaved. It is common for continued interaction visually, audibly, in dreams, and in “felt sense”. Ironically, even as this thin time is soothing it also separates one from the continuation of one’s own life and feeds the fog and surreal numbness and shock of acute grief. It can effectively block access to support because it often comes with blinding fatigue and is virtually impossible to name or describe to others.
There can be a generational or ancestral connection that also occurs with blurred time. I have seen occasion when the growth of reconciliation is accessed through skipped generations… a dying woman healing an abusive childhood or inherited pain of her traumatized parent through interaction with her child or grandchild. It feels like a parallel or mirrored journey that doesn’t need cognitive awareness to accomplish its purpose. It can be incredibly fluid.
There is a threshold when it is time to stop… a readiness. Most of the people I have known as clients have died when it was the right time for them and the threshold has been unique and of high congruence to their life story. It is fairly easily crossed. Many appear to have orchestrated the particulars. Despite a prolonged bedside vigil, it is in the brief moments when left alone that an extremely private person dies; holding on until a loved one arrives or sparing a loved one the experience; avoiding anniversaries or making it to special marker dates; dying of something else in a timely way to avoid a feared dependency; dying when a loved one has someone present for their own support or that support is promised by another; dying when a caregiver can absolutely not go on or when encouragement to go is offered.
How does one know it is time to leave? I have seen that it comes with listening to your body, trusting some greater or internal knowing, and choosing.
Watching someone who is dying savor the most ordinary life tasks is humbling. While taking exquisite pleasure in touch, smell, movement, and breath, the dying teach the preciousness of most everything we take for granted. If we are wise we keep this learning fresh in our daily pleasure of full moments. The richness of now is all there really is.
There were moments the morning of Penny’s death when she was alert and free of pain. She listened as I acknowledged her son’s devotion. She smiled in naming his artistic nature and hope that he would pursue his work with clay. Sun was streaming into her bedroom as I affirmed her awareness of her imminent death. Her eyes were clear and deeply wise. It was peaceful and she was accepting of this inevitability. This was the very same bedroom that had been a place of despair 12 hours earlier … the culmination of weeks of pain, anger and the constant nausea of a partial bowel blockage. The summons of her doctor who had long before become a close friend would clearly not occur because Penny would do her dying away from the woman who had helped her fight for life well beyond what should have been possible. She would wait for her mother and son to be there.
That morning Penny’s gift to me was the erasure of chronological time. It is the knowing that all of eternity is in the moment and it is full and never ending.