|In the small hospital room, our Irish-born grandmother lay close to death. As we gathered around speaking in low whispers, she awakened, smiled and lovingly looked at each of us as if taking in precious last moments. We talked and laughed, sharing our lives, but soon had to say our goodbyes. There were long car rides home to return to work and college.
I’ve always known this tall, proud woman to be independent and fearless with a resilience born from a life of hardships. To see her so weak and vulnerable after a recent amputation was jolting. Before we left, she gave us an important lesson on how to die. She said death is a natural part of life and after a long and fulfilling life, she was ready to accept and embrace death. We shouldn’t waste time grieving and at her funeral we should enjoy ourselves and have fun together.
In County Mayo where she was born, death is held differently from our rather long suffering painful denial and hushed avoidance. We say we don’t want to intrude on the dying and the grieving, but perhaps we don’t want to accept our own mortality. Reflecting on how Western Ireland shares and accepts death can be a valuable lesson for us.
In Western Ireland, my grandmother would be in her home with the loving support of family and friends at her bedside. When death drew near, they would keep vigil throughout the day and night chanting the Hail Mary prayer, cradling her into death. After her death, the community and relatives would come in great numbers to the wake to pray with food and drink, talk, gossip and tell stories of the deceased.
One of the oldest rites of humanity is the wake. It brings communities together to honor the life of the dead, helps the living to heal their grief and through accepting mortality as part of life, it brings closure and imparts meaning. Each person openly acknowledges the loss to the grieving family, easing their grief. In palliative care and the new role of the end- of-life doula, they often talk about the intimacy and sacredness they cultivate to accompany a death. Yet, it is said to be a mere shadow of the familial and communal blessing of the ancient ritual of the wake.
Death and dying is happening all around us. We might be surprised that within a few blocks from us, people are dying and families are grieving a recent death. In County Mayo, there is a local radio station that announces deaths and funeral arrangements three times a day. There is even a paid line to check up on any deaths one might have missed! To this day, the ancient Celtic form of sharing death within one’s community continues.
About two weeks after we left our grandmother’s side, she passed away in the hospital. Her daughters visited frequently but the process of her dying and death did not have the intimate support of loved ones at her bedside. At her wake, our large Irish family celebrated her life and her death. She was a character and many decades after her death, we still enjoy telling stories about her.
Perhaps a life well lived is a life that culminates in the wisdom of acceptance and letting go. Facing our own mortality and helping others to face theirs requires engagement and often courage. Through our human need for connection and community, accepting death as a part of life helps us to reach out to the dying, the dead and the bereaved. We learn how to go on living no matter how great the loss. And we learn how to face our own death.
Lama Pat Berube