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A dear friend of mine is dying of cancer. She’s been labeled with words you never want to hear: Terminal. Stage four. Cancer in her lungs and spine.
She’s my age, 43 – one of the members of our “69 Club,” born in the magickal year of 1969, the year of Woodstock, the moon landing, and the birth of Sesame Street.
We’re not BFF, talk-on-the-phone-every-day friends, but we’re there for each other, part of a chosen family, spiritual sisters. I suppose that makes her dying both easier and more difficult for me. Easier in that, unlike her best friend, the gap her absence will leave in my life won’t show up every morning. Harder because the time we have left together, the powerful connection we make when the tides of our lives swirl us into the same cove, is limited and precious.
A few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took the route of chemotherapy and radiation. To make a long story short, she recovered and her cancer went into remission.
Yet the chemo messed with her mental health; she’d been prone to depression before, and the chemicals threw her into a very dark place. I didn’t know how to help. I remember visiting her in the hospital, bringing her a stuffed kitty, hugging her and listening, not knowing what to say. She pulled herself back up, step by painful step. Lately things were going well. She focused on doing the things she loves, like photography. She’s an amazing photographer.
When the cancer returned, starting with a cold that turned into pneumonia that just wouldn’t go away, she made the decision not to do chemo and radiation. The decision, essentially, to die with grace on her own terms.
My friend got flack for her decision. Even though there was no guarantee that the chemo would even help. Even though undergoing conventional treatment might mean that her last months would be a hell of depression and angst. I think some of her friends who were cancer survivors were afraid that what they saw as her “giving up” was a reflection on their own stories. Other friends and family members were simply overwhelmed with the thought of losing her.
I supported her decision fully. I’m not a huge fan of the pharmaceutical-heavy methods of Western medicine. However, I admit that my next reaction involved seeking alternate cures. Raw foods, herbs, hemp oil – weren’t there things that could be done? I presented some of my findings to her, gently and with kindness. And then had to accept that this was her path, not mine.
In some ways it makes sense, my friend leaving the earth plane at such a young age. Her link with the worlds-beyond is strong. I’ve long admired her connection with her spirit guides. My friend and I both believe in life after death. I admit I have no way of knowing what it is, or even that it exists. Yet my intuition tells me there is something.
Now my friend is living the rest of her life with as much grace and love as possible. She lives alone, yet has a strong community of family and friends. She recently fulfilled her dream of swimming with dolphins, traveling south with her best friend while she was still able to do so. It was exhausting, but uplifting. Her entire being lights up as she describes her experience with these amazing creatures.
She is spending her remaining time with loved ones, laughing and sharing photos and memories. Playing cribbage and giving gifts. Planning her Celebration of Life party, which will be held in place of a funeral. Enlisting friends to spend overnights with her when she gets weaker, so hopefully she won’t have to leave home. Managing her pain so that she can still function each day and honoring her body’s need for a lot of extra rest.
Yes, she struggles. Who wouldn’t? There is the physical pain, but also the emotional pain of leaving those you love. And there is the tough work of letting go, of releasing the need to control every detail. As a very independent woman, it is a particular challenge for her to let go and trust that things will get done. Yet even this is handled with grace and mindfulness.
She still brings forth her empathic concern for others, even in the midst of her struggles. I’m helping to facilitate her Celebration of Life, and she asked me if that was fair to me, as I’ll be grieving. She worries about “paying back” all of those who are stepping forward to aid her. She is a deeply caring person.
I can only speak of my own experience. Though I am sharing my admiration for her journey, make no mistake, this is so hard. How heartbreaking to talk with her about the things we’ll do at her celebration, after she’s gone from us. It is rough to witness her slowing down more and more, eating less and less. It’s frustrating to see her struggling with the details, using up her precious moments in worry and fear.
But who wouldn’t be afraid? Faith aside, we really don’t know what happens to us when we die. And that’s not even her biggest fear. It’s the pain, the potential suffering when she approaches her final days. It’s the not knowing. When will it happen? Will a random encounter with a germ send her into the hospital? How long does dying take? Will she be able to stay at home?
Really, aren’t we all suffering, in our own way? We are mortal, and don’t know how or when we’ll die. Our lives contain much uncertainty. Sometimes we just want to be done and go “home” to another place, where we can bask in the full light of the spirit. Other times we cling to life as we are tossed by the swells of this great mysterious ocean. We walk our paths, do our spiritual practices, learn and grow. There is joy, and also sorrow. We all struggle sometimes.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it needs to be said: one of my early reactions to my friend’s predicament was a kind of envy. I wished I was being embraced by my community, helped with my daily needs, told how much I was loved, gifted with their time and energy despite their busy lives. I wanted to be special. I wanted the chance to transcend the challenges of this plane and see what lies beyond.
As I moved past that stage, I noticed how I was treating each visit with my friend as potentially our last. My attention was focused, my compassion enhanced, my awareness of each moment keen. The thought came: if we never know when we’ll die, shouldn’t I treat every encounter with every being like this?
I am learning from my friend’s practice of letting go, of accepting what is happening right now. I’m learning from her about prioritizing what’s truly important: love, laughter, listening. Forgiveness. Being. And, as she often says, “keeping it real.”
As we move through this process together, it occurs to me: maybe dying with grace is a lot like living with grace.
|Nikki Starcat Shields is a writer, Mom, blogger, Reiki healer, and licensed priestess. She offers her insights, antics, and reverent joy at Starcat’s Corner. Nikki is the author of the forthcoming book “Starcat’s Corner: Essays on Pagan Living.” She shares her calling at her business, Feline Dreamers.|