Oh, only for so short a while you have loaned us to each other,…
Because even a drawing cut in obsidian fades,
and even the sounds of the waterfall
die out in the dry season.
So, we too, because only for a short while
have you loaned us to each other.
– Aztec Indian prayer
I was summoned to the emergency department to be with a patient and his family. Terry was an elderly Native American man who lived on an American Indian Reservation near our facility. Terry had cancer that had metastasized throughout his vital organs, and his condition became worse very suddenly.
Family members were gathering when the spiritual leader of his Native American faith community arrived. The medical staff quietly moved out of the trauma room as the family—his spouse, grandchildren, children, cousins and friends—gathered around the dying elder. Terry was on the threshold between this world and the next, with family there to help in his crossing.
As Terry lay on the gurney, the spiritual leader stood next to him and said, “We are here to sing for you.” He began to ring a handbell he had brought with him in a steady cadence, for all to sing by. He led us as we sang songs in the Native American way. Then he said, “We have sung three songs of healing: one for the body, one for the heart, and one for the life. Now the floor is open.” This meant anyone was welcome to give a tribute to the dying elder, or even ask for forgiveness from him. Actually, anything could be spoken that would help Terry on his journey.
This pattern continued: a song sung, a word of support given. At times, Terry’s heart would slow and weaken, the monitor barely detecting it. At other moments, during a song or in response to the words of a child or friend, his heart would quicken.
Time passed, yet time was no more because we all stood at the portal of the eternal. During this time, the staff continued to work quietly around the family. Even if the staff members weren’t familiar with the religious beliefs and customs of Terry and his family, they respected and honored the family’s need to say goodbye.
After about two hours, Terry’s soul let go of his body and moved on. We sang one last song, and then the leader directed me to cover Terry’s body with a blanket, for his life was no longer with us. His family filed quietly from the room.
Leaving the room, I marveled at the beauty of Terry’s death; the witness of young and old assisting the elder’s journey. What a wonderful way for him to take the last few steps from this world into the next, being honored and supported as he returned to his creator.
Terry and I do not share a common faith, but I would want to have a death like his, with true reverence and my family by my side.
Shared From the Sacred Stories Archive
Questions for Reflection
How do you create space which allows those you care for to freely engage in their spiritual practices?
What would you like your death to look like, and have you shared your wishes with your loved ones?
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