My Shared Death Experience
Loved speaking at the IANDS conference this weekend. I shared an except from Water Oak: The Happiness of Longing that describes what’s being called a “shared death experience” – something that many people experience when a loved one dies. Here’s the excerpt:
Paul appears to me now in a dream, wakes me from a deep slumber on the floor beside the hospital bed. He’s vibrantly healthy, happy and smiling, pulling me to stand up. “Wake up” he says. “Wake up and hold me like you said you would.”
I open my eyes and realize another day has cycled in through the hospital window, illuminating us with rainy light, dappled and glowing. His labored breathing hasn’t changed.
“Paul was just with me. He’s ready to go,” I say to his mother, moving to stand by the bed. She nods. We ask everyone to leave and we stand beside him, looking out the window at the soft summer rain, the green gentle foothills sloping upwards. We rub his arms and legs. “Go play outside my baby, I’ll always love you. I’ll be okay. You’re free to go,” I whisper in his ear.
At those words, his tortured breathing stops; he takes one peaceful sigh and the light leaves his body. I watch it rise and travel up through the window and out to the green hills. We move to the window watching; the rain seems to lift briefly, then sprinkle again, sunlight peppering in through the clouds, shining in on us – a golden surprise.
This is a moment beyond words. My logical mind can’t understand it. But my heart and soul know. I’ve just witnessed a miracle; an everyday miracle, a soul lifting peacefully from a body, slipping into the invisible. It’s not a death. What a very wrong thing to call it. He shifted gracefully into something, purposefully, lovingly towards – not away from. He freed himself, leaving like a gentle kiss, slipping blissfully towards what I once called heaven.
I feel giddy, without borders, lifted. I know in an instant that there is a rule, a law, a purpose to everything, to my life, to Paul’s pain; that I’ve always been guided, held to the task I came here to accomplish. This sense of knowing follows me for days and weeks.
I see the divine order within each moment; signs that all is well in every conversation with a friend, in the magical apartment that Paul reveals to me in a dream and I rent the next day. I feel light and free, untethered and joyful, without appetite for food or sleep.
Living in the invisible realms now, my true home, I’m aware of the briefness of earthly lifetimes. I feel held by the angels who cherish me; they whisper in my ear at night when Paul visits, wrapping his fuzzy legs around mine in bed; holding me close until an angel calls him away. This physical world is truly not real and it’s such a relief to know it. Fully. Vividly. Through my senses know it. Costumes peel away. I see spirit everywhere. Paul has taken me with him.
Until my body pulls me back down to this weighty realm – the one I agreed to live in. But I don’t want to feel this heaviness, don’t want to be fully back in the body. I want my awareness to perch above it, heart soaring in the invisible. Everything I want is there not here and yet my body comes tumbling down, crashing into the earth with such force that I dry heave all night. It’s been four weeks, maybe five, since Paul died.
The lack of food and sleep, the exhaustion from months of changing canisters of bile, adjusting tubes, filling syringes, measuring fluids, giving shots, counting pills, sleeping on the floor beside his bed, praying, cheering, living fearlessly in dark terror of what awaited.
Those vivid pictures of Paul’s disintegration pour back into my soul now poisoning my once sweet dreams of him. I feel sick, sicker than I’ve ever felt. Friends grow concerned over my weight loss, take me to dinner. The smell of food sends me running outside of every café, every restaurant, every kitchen. Dry heaving in the grass. Embarrassed. Just want to go home. Finally I eat grapes and they stay.
I need to write, to tell this story, the story of Paul. I spend hours at the typewriter filling in the details of pain. I write 90,000 words of torture. No one can read it. Too much suffering but how well I’ve documented it. Perhaps journalism school, they suggest. But it’s what happened to Paul, I tell them. Doesn’t matter. Un-publishable.
But I must tell it. Start journalism school. Get a job at the paper. Profoundly wise editor pushes me to write an article about the Boulder Hospice. I finally do. It breaks me wide open.
-By Sue Frederick