Snow started falling a day later than predicted: Saturday instead of Friday, and in fits and starts. The delay and the initial amount disappointed me. I figured, as with all the other promised snows this season, we might get a thin frosting that would ice the crumbs down then disappear in 12 hours. It snowed enough on Saturday, though, for a legitimate blanket to survive the night. Sunday morning it began in earnest, continuing through last night. I figure, judging by the thickness of the blanket against a granite boulder in the front yard, that we've gotten over eight inches, maybe even closer to ten. A month and a half after Christmas I'm finally living in a Christmas card, again. It was a gray sky snow. A branch bending snow. A sound muffling snow. A chain snow that most people here, yesterday, had to negotiate without chains. It caught my neighbors by surprise. Going-home vehicles had trouble, yesterday evening, making it past my driveway. My home is right at the point where a gentle slope becomes a determined climb. Many of the slipping cars angled themselves, with difficulty, into my driveway to gain purchase for a turn and headed back toward town. This morning an endless, thick slab of snow covers everything except cracks where the branches of evergreens, leafed and needled, have carved smooth, rounded cracks in the slab.
Miscellaneous note: It is with some difficulty that I am using "my" to describe this house, this home, rather than "our". I'm making a conscious, labored effort, to habituate to referring to it as "my" house, "my" home. It isn't that I wish to lose the sense that it is "our" home. It will always be "our" home. But, for practical reasons, it seems to me as though, in normal conversation and thought, the concerted use of "my" might help me lose the continued sense of absence that engulfs me every time I reenter "our" home. It's one of the few structured grief therapies to which I am consenting.
The Hospice Chaplain called yesterday. It was, again, awkward, at first, talking with her, but she is gently persistent and I so appreciate her calls that I work hard to craft a legitimate conversation. Once we warmed up our conversation lasted well over an hour. Without the more natural connection, for me, anyway, of pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, I had more trouble, than I do writing here, telling her that grieving is, at the moment, getting harder instead of easier. She picked up on what I was trying to express, though, and helped me verbally clarify some of what I've been experiencing. The most significant aspect is that the mental fog continues without cease, muffling productive thought and action. I'm "hanging on for the ride", though, and grateful that I don't have to cut it short or interrupt it with the normally essential work of surviving. Toward the end of our conversation she congratulated me on sticking with it, regardless of the difficulty. She intimated that refusing to turn away from the grief ultimately opens one's heart (she speaks from experience on this, by the way) and often brings additional clarity. "I hope so," I told her.
I can't remember how we got into it, but part of our conversation involved the process of dying; what it feels like, what the dying one experiences. Previous to talking to her I had assumed that it's impossible to know unless one is going through it. I tend to regard "almost dying" experiences as not legitimate death experiences, since the person who "comes back" hasn't died. As well, of course, I'm aware of the scientific explanations of what happens neurologically when one dies and how Western science has linked much of the physical deterioration of dying to the states often described in "almost dying" experiences.
She asked me, though, if I would be interested in literature that described the process of dying from the inside out. "Yes," I said. I'm intensely curious about what my mother might have been experiencing through the hours she was dying; especially since she indicated her unusual, unexpected discomfort to me, a discomfort about which I commented, day before yesterday, after reading a post at Dethmama's journal.
The Hospice Chaplain told me she and one of the Hospice RNs with whom I'm acquainted (the one who subbed for our regular Hospice RN when he was off) would get back to me with material references. For the meantime she mentioned The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as one reference, talked about how she vaguely recalled that it contained a description of "dissolving of the elements". Sounds pretty esoteric, I thought, but intriguing. That, I figured, would be an easy reference to seek out, since I own a copy of it. I'd read it through some years ago but have almost no memory of the book, let alone anything specific about the process of death. Funny how you don't retain what you don't need at a particular time!
The Hospice Chaplain also mentioned researching the internet, which was what I did first, assuming that The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying would contain less clinical explanations. The internet exercise was unproductive. Aside from snippets of "NDEs" (Near Death Experiences], versus what I label, in my mind, Approaching Death Experiences, I was only able to find two references, both of which ultimately skirted the descriptions in which I was interested. The first is a much linked to and quoted article published in October, 2007, in NewScientist that describes what, exactly, kills people under a variety of lethal circumstances. It is so prolifically quoted that, six pages into my search, various links to the article continued to overwhelm links to any other pertinent information on the web. It is so popular that an edition of The Water Cooler Diaries has been devoted to verbally summarizing the article. Although the article contains some information about what various death experiences might feel like, only one, drowning, has a fairly detailed explanation (with which my experience concurs). The rest mentions, offhandedly, statistics like seconds or minutes of viability after the lethal act and the method of oxygen deprivation, which is what kills most people. The title of the article is the exact phrase I used in my internet search, which surprised me, but the title was misleading. There is lots of interest in the death experience but not a lot of reliable information which, I suppose, is not surprising.
The second internet resource I found is the full text of a book entitled The Natural Death Handbook. Chapter 2 contains multiple descriptions of dying folks, famous and obscure. The catch is that all the descriptions are from the outside looking in, curious but still not what I was looking for. I decided to abandon the internet.
When I found my copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying I leafed directly to the chapter entitled The Process of Dying and discovered, seven pages into the chapter, some cogent descriptions of certain physical experiences noted through the ages by Tibetan doctors and observers of the dying and the dying, themselves. Between the covers of metaphysical metaphor I found a surprisingly detailed, hauntingly physical analysis of what my mother probably experienced through her last three to four days as she was dying. It is so fascinating to me and seems so accurate that I've decided to quote pertinent passages, below, and describe how I interpret these passages using what I observed of my mother's experience of death. Since I'm not interested in challenging copyright, I'm mentioning, here, that my edition of the book is copyrighted as of 1993 by Rigpa Fellowship; I'm also invoking the copyright instructions on the opposite side of the title page which allow "brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews."
Although I will be quoting the metaphysical explanations of what happens as one dies, note, also that the metaphysics is accompanied with clear explanations of physical processes. Keep in mind that much of what seems like metaphysical description to our Western sensibility is considered to be a legitimate technical vocabulary in Eastern thought, bringing to mind exact delineations of physical areas and processes. As well, the chapter lays out a specific event line. As I was reading it seemed to me that my mother's event line differed but, as I compared what I was reading with what I reported and recalled, it turns out only one event, the one hallucination she had of which I am sure, was out of sync. In cases where I have reported events as my mother experienced them in this journal I'll attempt to find and link to them. I'll quote in this color and typeface. My comments will be in my typical typeface and color.
The book prescribes a proper position for dying:
The Outer Dissolution: The Senses and The Elements
The next four phases follow the dissolution of the elements: [of which there are five: earth, water, fire, air, space; each corresponds to various physical parts and processes; they also correlate with spiritual "parts" and processes]
AirAh! That felt good! Going through this description of dying and correlating it, point by point, to what I observed during the last days and hours of my mother's life has lightened me a bit. As I worked through the correlation I was able to remember how it was that I was never sure, until she died, whether she was dying, thus, I wasn't sure that I conducted myself appropriately to her circumstances. I can see, now, several clues, throughout her last hours, that she was, indeed, dying, regardless of whether she thought she was. Frankly, I'm glad I wasn't sure at the time. I think my confusion supported her staunch determination that she was not dying; thus, I did not fight her drive (which is a drive we all have, by the way, according to both of the Final books) to die in character. I'm also glad that I had no memory of having read this book, nor anything else that described the dying process. This allowed me to clearly and innocently notice things, rather than look for things. Reading through what I wrote over the last few days of her life, I did guess that she was dying, but, just as quickly, I'd second guess and, finally, decided just to ride the episode out and observe rather than label it. I'm sure part of the reason I decided to go with the flow of the ride rather than try to figure out the "future" significance of what was happening is that there had been many times in my mother's life during our companionship when I would anxiously wonder if she was dying "now", and, much to her consternation, ask her if she was.
I think it's important to note that the reason I had no trouble with the metaphysical vocabulary of the Tibetan description of death is because of my familiarity with elemental metaphysics through astrology. The element of "space" (sometimes called "ether") was a relatively new one to me, having only recently encountered it in a PBS program, The Story of India. You'll notice, in the above citations, only four of the five elements are discussed in regard to death. Within the last section that I didn't cover there is a presumption that it is involved in the after-physical-death dissolution.
It is important, as well, to consider that any medications delivered to the dying one may alter and/or eliminate some of the symptoms of dying described above. There is one medication, for instance (which we didn't use) designed to silence the death rattle. It is not for the comfort of the dying, of course, but for the comfort of the living. Some medications, like morphine, for instance, may increase certain dying symptoms, like the sense of thirst and the drying out of normal bodily fluids, mucus, for instance. Some short circuit the experience of pain that is described in the passages above, thus, may also short circuit the experience of physical pleasure. Morphine, too, alters the body's response to air hunger, so, of course, would alter how the dying one breathes. This is not to say that I believe it is inadvisable or spiritually tainted to administer palliative meds as someone is dying. In fact, I'm glad we had them and would use them again if I was in the presence of someone who was dying and experiencing pain and/or shortness of breath and/or unusual physical discomfort that could be alleviated by the administration of medications (including herbs, etc.). Perhaps, in strict Tibetan Death Theory, medicating for dying symptoms might be spiritually problematic; I'm not sure of this, I'm just speculating. However, it isn't for me. I'm sure it wasn't for my mother, either.