It’s a mild rainy Monday evening at my sister Lili’s house in upstate New York. I’ve been here for 4 1/2 weeks helping and watching her transition into death.
We ensconced her on a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by children’s art, candles, soft fabrics and flowers. Mostly it was quiet, occasionally we played soft music, visitors would come in and sit by her bedside. Her 12 year old son Simi and 10 year old daughter Isi visited each evening and we made puzzles in the kitchen where Lili could hear us. At first there were loud fights and strong emotions, but as the adults consistently reassured the children, they calmed down and started to appreciate that there are also wonderful things that can happen when a parent dies while supported by loved ones and uplifted by spiritual traditions.
The holiday season receded to a dim distance, yet somehow we baked cookies, made decorations, spirited in a tree, covered it with candles and surprised the children with gifts and an early Christmas dinner. It was as if Lili’s strong inner energy made things come together in a way no one could have planned.
Over four Sundays we held a prayer circle at noon for her community: singing, drumming, sitting in silence and telling her our prayers. On the last Sunday Lili had slipped into a coma and when the prayer circle was finished we sat there, no one moving, and listened to her breathe for endless minutes, children in wonderment, adults in quiet contemplation.
On that same solstice evening Lili breathed her last. It happened after a dramatic healing through her close friend Ronna, who suddenly felt Lili’s pain and spontaneously blew it out with a gasp, shaking and shuddering afterwards. The heavy atmosphere that had gathered in the room cleared instantly and we marvelled at the magic of death when it is consciously embraced and attended. Simi was present, had wanted to be present, and filled glasses of juice which he handed around to everyone, announcing, “I’d like to propose a toast to my mother!” It’s what happens when children are involved in all the details, surrounded by caring family and friends and trusted to be able to handle whatever they choose. Isi stayed overnight with friends and her eyes are shiny with the specialness of this time.
We kept Lili’s body overnight and into the next day to the surprise of the funeral home staff, staying with her in the possibility that her spirit was lonely and raw in grief. I got up early and had breakfast at her side, reading to her from the spiritual book I’d been studying each morning. The chapter happened to be a moving story about rising above death and I cried in wonder. Later we washed and dressed her, talking to her all the while, reciting heartfelt prayers and then walked her out to the funeral van, me sobbing. Later we visited her in her beautifully carved unfinished poplar coffin and placed special items with her in preparation for the funeral tomorrow. My heart has rarely felt as much pain as looking at her radiant, peaceful face in that moment.
And then it passed. It comes in waves, cracking my heart open more each time. This healing is for all of us who took this journey with her, both close and from a distance. It has been a spiritual retreat of powerful depth and challenging confrontations with our blockages. There were times when I felt so badly about myself I couldn’t imagine getting through it. And here I am through—light, amazed, transformed.
After the funeral we will offer an open version of the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva, mourning, praying, communing for several hours each day over three days. The children will be included and we’ll make a story of Lili’s magical transition to read each winter solstice as candles are lit to welcome in the light.
Then I will drive home and life will go on. But it will never be exactly the same.
It is very helpful for me to write this. Thank you for listening.