Death, dying, and the Dharma

I would try to let go into my own breath, feeling that every time I breathed out I should not expect to breathe in again. I tried to hold a sense of loving kindness, accepting the person I was with completely. I felt that if I could breathe out completely it might somehow be a little easier for the person whose hand I was holding to die. When I sat with the dying in this way I also knew that my experience was highly subjective. It struck me again and again that even in such close proximity, death remains completely hidden. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger said: “Death is not an experience.”

The morning of Keith’s death came in a brief period when I felt some confidence as a volunteer. Keith was a gay man in his early forties dying of AIDS, who had been in the house for some time, and I had formed something of a friendship with him. He was liked by all the staff and volunteers. To be admitted to the hospice the prognosis has to be six months or less. Sometimes (but not often) people survived longer, but most of those who came to us died within weeks. I went upstairs and into Keith’s room. Before the advent of the new drug cocktails, people with AIDS did not so much die as fade away. At some point the capacity or the will to eat would go, and the person slowly starved to death.

Keith had been unable to eat for a while and he had no body fat left. His once-handsome face had taken on the appearance of a famine victim. But because he was white his appearance evoked images of the Nazi death camps rather than a natural disaster. Mostly people here die in the small hours when the body is at its lowest ebb. It is as if the tide goes out and does not come back in.

There are many things to do after a death at the hospice — both practical and ritualistic. First Tod and I have to wash carefully Keith’s pathetically frail body. We take our time; we are saying goodbye. I try my best to stay with it and after a few minutes I feel something within me relax. I feel a sense of tenderness. For a short while the rest of the world retreats and there is nothing else in my mind but this simple act of care. This is the first time I have washed a corpse.

Keith has left instructions on how he would like to be dressed — jeans, cowboy shirt and boots. There is something absurd and touching about the way Tod and I struggle to get the tooled leather boots onto Keith’s body. After we have washed and dressed the body and Tod has attended to Keith’s hair, we sit for a while in the quiet room as the morning sun floods in.

Then I retire into the alcove on the landing, which acted as an office for the volunteers. I have a list of Guest House volunteers, and they all need to be phoned. There are perhaps 30 or so. It brings back memories of ringing family and friends after the death of my father all those years ago. Call after call is answered by answering machines. It is a relief when halfway through the list I speak to a real person. “I am phoning to let you know that Keith died a little while ago, the body will be here until tonight, if you would like to come and say goodbye.” The door bell rings, it is two friends of Keith come to see him. I can hear Tod explaining to them that Keith is dead. They come upstairs to sit with the body for a while. Throughout the day there is a steady trickle of visitors, and some remark on Keith’s outfit.

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