Archive for the ‘leaving’ Category


A couple of weeks ago, I came across this article by hospice social worker, Lizzy Miles. She’s also a blogger, writer, and credited with bringing the first Death Cafe to the United States. This article challenges the widely held view that we should tell a person who is near death that “it’s OK to go.”

As a hospice volunteer for many years, I’ve often heard that advice given to family members and I know that I’ve offered it on a few occasions.

The first person I said those words to was my sister Carol. She was very near death and I was sitting at her bedside, singing softly, holding her hand, speaking quietly. “You’re safe now,” I told her over and over. “It’s OK to go.”

I was operating on instinct more than anything I remember being told.  It just felt right. She’d had such a long struggle, filled with pain and near constant nausea. She was safe now, at the hospital (though she had never wanted to be there), with me by her side as she’d wanted.

And much as I never wanted to let her go, I knew it was time. All the possibilities for a cure had been exhausted. Every remedy for pain relief had been tried. It felt like it was time to let her go. I told her I loved her, that she would always be in my heart, and, hardest of all, that I would be OK. The last thing felt like the farthest thing from anything I felt. I felt like I would never be OK, that I would never get over losing her. Yet, I knew in my heart that I had to tell her I would be alright after she died. That we would all be OK. And I had to let her go.

Recently a family member asked me if she should tell her father it was alright for him to die. She told me her mother had asked her to say that, believing that her father was holding on for her. “What do you think?” she asked me. “Should I tell him?”

I had just read the article a few days before and Lizzy Miles’ advice was fresh in my mind. Still I could hear the daughter’s suffering and I wanted to respond.

After a long minute of silence I said, “I think there does come a time when we need to let go. When we need to reassure the person we love that we’ll be OK, even though we don’t feel like that right now. I think they might need to hear that we’ll be OK, even though our hearts may be broken.”

I don’t know what she told her father, though I know she seemed comforted by my words.

In this world there is so much we can never know. Before my sister died, I called myself the least spiritual person I knew. I almost bragged about it. After she died, I began to speak of death as a mystery, the incomprehensible space between life and no life. My years at hospice have only strengthened that belief in the mystery of life and death.

I speak less now. I listen more. And I grow more at ease with not knowing.

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Last Days

Today is my last full day at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the amazing retreat centre where I’ve spent the past four and a half weeks. Today is misty, the mountains shrouded in haze, and every single leaf and blade of grass seems to be holding into a drop of dew as if for dear life (and perhaps that’s true since it’s been very dry here, with daily fire warnings from the Weather Service!).

The land on which we are situated is owned by Sweet Briar College – a century old women’s college just across the highway, on hundreds of acres of woods. Many of us fellows (as we are called, to my amusement) head over to Sweet Briar to use the pool and gym, run on the grounds, and enjoy the newly renovated library. A week before I came here, the college President announced that the college would be closing in August, this year’s senior class being the last to graduate. The news hit everyone – students, faculty, staff, townsfolk who depend on the college for income, and VCCA staff and fellows – very hard. Though there is a spirited campaign to save the college (whose motto when I first came here was “Think Pink”) and law suits have been filed by several groups and individuals. The timing of the announcement, however, means that most students are scrambling to find a place to study next year, and faculty and staff (some of whom own houses on the property) are trying to figure out what to do as their lives have been completely upended.

As I walked around the campus yesterday, I had the distinct feeling that I had unintentionally walked into a funeral where I didn’t belong. The campus was nearly deserted, though classes are still going on. The bookstore’s shelves are almost empty, the woman on the cash – an alumna – reflecting the sadness felt throughout the college. “It’s a very sad time,” she said to me in her lilting Virginia accent. An ending. Last days. And uncertainty beyond.

And here, at VCCA, almost every day brings a departure or two or more. Unlike some residencies, VCCA staggers its fellows’ times, so that, although there are always around 25 people here, there are constant comings and goings. For an introvert like me, that represents something of a challenge. Though I could just keep my head down and ignore the changes, I’ve come here determined to learn people’s names, what their art form is, where they are from. (I cheat a little, as we have a “crib sheet” with names, room and studio numbers, and dates of residency. I annotate it will little scribbles to remind me of who each person is!) As a result, I have formed friendships, connections, with many people since I arrived on March 10th, a month ago. Emails are exchanged, promises to keep in touch are made, hugs all around, day after day.

We all share the bond of our work – our commitment to putting our art first in our lives, if only for these days and weeks while we are here. Though we may never talk about the specifics of our work, I am inspired by the determination, long hours, and faith that each person demonstrates – be it composer, sculptor, painter, poet, novelist, or non-fiction writer. We remind one another that what we do matters – even if no one in the outside world knows about it!

Two days ago, two boxes of my book arrived! “I don’t have time for this!” has a form, substance, a shiny cover! Yesterday, on my sister Carol’s birthday, I sent out a dozen copies, each one with a thank you note, to the people who had written testimonials for the book. It seemed fitting that it should be Carol’s “special day” since my time with her when she was dying was when all this writing, hospice volunteering, and speaking and thinking about death and dying began.

And so, on this last day here at VCCA, as I prepare to take the pages of writing and photographs down from the walls, gather together my piles of stories from the floor and every available surface, I’m thinking about last days in our lives. We have many leave takings, many last days, before the final one. On an ordinary day, I might have walked towards my studio with blinkers on, not noticing the dew drops hanging from the buds on the vine. I might not have lingered at breakfast, talking with a recent arrival – who, it turns out, lost her sister 15 years ago, and who asked to buy my book for herself and her 91-year old mother. Knowing I am leaving sharpens my attention, even as it widens my focus. This very moment. Then this very moment. Breathing.

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