When I interviewed author and yoga instructor Suza Francina for my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, she told me about her experience helping an elderly friend of hers die at home. It’s a sacred and powerful story, which I’ll start with her bio:
Suza, who prefers to be known by her first name, is a pioneer in the field of teaching yoga to seniors. She is the author of The New Yoga for People Over 50, Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause, and The New Yoga for Healthy Aging. She is a graduate of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, a certified Iyengar yoga instructor, and a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. A consultant for medical research studies on yoga, Suza teaches yoga internationally to people of all ages in a wide variety of settings. Click here to visit Suza’s website.
When one of Ruth’s friends called and said that Ruth wanted to see me, I didn’t think anything of it. When I walked into her apartment, her neighbor Betty, who was helping Ruth with her meals, was dumping oatmeal down the sink. She told me quite casually that Ruth was going to starve herself to death. Apparently, Ruth had had another stroke, was having memory lapses, and didn’t want to wait so long that she couldn’t make this decision.
Betty said that Ruth had considered this a few times before, and even had fasted for a short while, because she didn’t want to become dependent. The fact that she had lost control of her bowels and bladder was the last straw. She didn’t like people having to come in and change her diaper.
When I went into Ruth’s room, she was relaxing on her bed. I sat with her and she explained to me that she was ready to stop eating and that she wanted to die at home. She asked me to be her advocate and make sure that nobody fed her. She chose me to be her guardian because she knew that I was aligned with her philosophy. I promised I would help.
Even though all this had taken me by surprise, after considering it, I felt it was a very wise decision. Ruth was accustomed to fasting for health and spiritual purposes, and that history would allow her to go through the process of letting go of her body by not eating or drinking. She had prepared for this the way I imagine that a holy person might.
Ruth’s physician also supported her. He was well acquainted with her philosophy and had agreed never to do anything to prolong her life against her wishes. His main concern was that she be kept comfortable.
We spent a lot of time in silence, just sitting. When you sit with someone who’s dying, and you hold their hand, you start to tune into the space that they’re in. I felt like I was sitting in two worlds. When I’d leave her home and step outside, it was literally like stepping back into the stream of life.
I knew that I was observing something very sacred and profound. It’s so unusual in our culture to be in the presence of somebody dying consciously. The body is the temple of the spirit, but it’s also just a shell. Looking at Ruth, I could see that she was very much still there, but I began to sense that her life force was preparing to leave.
Right before I left one night, she motioned to me to come closer. Even with my ear right up to her lips I could barely hear her. “I’m so lucky to have friends like you,” she whispered. She asked me to pull the covers up to her chin, then added, “You can leave anytime you want.” We kissed goodbye several times. “Goodbye, Ruth,” I said. “I love you very much.” “And I love you,” she replied.
Ruth had gotten rid of most of her worldly possessions. Her room was like a monastery, a sanctuary. It had no clutter, it was totally clean. We had all the windows open so she had fresh air. Every day we would bring fresh flowers. We made her room into a sacred space.
On the fourteenth day, as Ruth lay motionless, I took her bony hand in mine and asked her how she felt. She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then she whispered, “I’ve looked forward to this for years.” The way she said it was just so transcendent, it brought tears to my eyes.
That night, Ruth’s eyes became glassy and unfocused. But her heart continued its endless repetitions—the almost insane, mad task of pumping life force through her dying body. At midnight, she began to fidget. It was if her spirit were fighting to fly out of her body. For some reason, I was gripped by fear. Why can’t her flesh release her spirit? I wondered. Why can’t she relax and let go?
On the sixteenth day, the night of the Winter Solstice, I was so exhausted that I needed to nap at home before driving over for the night shift. Betty had called earlier to tell me she had to leave by nine o’clock. When I woke up, it was past nine, and by the time my boyfriend Paul drove me over, I was half an hour late and still half asleep.
As I opened the door, I tried to assure myself that Ruth was asleep as usual and hadn’t even noticed that she had been alone. But when I walked in, I saw that she wasn’t in bed. I freaked out, thinking that my worst fear of someone “rescuing” Ruth and rushing her to the emergency room had come true. As I screamed for Paul, I saw that Ruth had fallen off the far side of her bed and was hanging face down, tangled up in her sheets. I felt terrible, especially because she may have been like that for half an hour. We put her back in bed, put a cold cloth over the bump on her forehead, and made her as comfortable as possible.
Before long, she began fidgeting again. I don’t know that she was in pain, but it was like her spirit was trying to wrestle out of her body. I said goodbye to her and left her alone with Paul. Like a labor coach, he held her hand and softly said, “Be at peace, Ruth, you are going somewhere beautiful.” We checked on her every hour. Around 4 AM, I saw that she was turning yellow. I woke up Paul, and he turned on the overhead light. Her head was perfectly centered on the pillow. He checked her pulse and confirmed that she was gone.
Today, twenty years later, I am grateful to Ruth for providing me with a wonderful role model: she died with dignity and with all her faculties intact. Helping her die gave me a deep awareness of the inevitability of death and of the knowledge that everything is transient, everything changes. It brought me more in touch with the sacredness of life and death and how the two are connected.
Ruth was someone who exercised tremendous freedom and intelligence in choosing the way she left this world. Now that I’m older, I more fully understand how courageous she was. In this society, it’s still very extraordinary to die like that.
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ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the one book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.
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