In previous posts, I have written about a family member who was seriously ill. That family member was my fiance's 21-year old daughther, Helen, who sadly lost her battle with leukemia on Friday, June 26, at 1:51 p.m. This was the latest, and saddest, of many deaths -- human and animal -- that have occurred within my circle this year. 2009 has somehow turned into the year of death. I will say, though, that this year has forever changed the way that I think about death.
My personal view of the universe is that death is inevitable for all that lives, and that everything that dies comes back around again in another form, so paradoxically souls don't ever really die, they just continually evolve. That's been my belief for a while, and that belief remains not only intact but also stronger than ever in light of recent events. When viewed through this lens, death is less scary and tragic than most people tend to see it, although it doesn't necessarily make things less painful when it's someone you love, or ultimately yourself, who's doing the dying. The things that I recently added to my view of death are these: that death is a form a healing, and that to be with someone when they die is one of life's highest honors and holds its own kind of beauty.
Right before Helen's leukemia returned and the doctors said there was no hope, she had been through a lengthy and life-threatening lung illness. She was hooked to a ventilator through a trach tube, and she weighed all of about 70 pounds. As a Iwatched her fight her lung troubles, I remember thinking, "I want to her to find peace, in whatever form that may take." Maybe because I equate peace with health, it occurred to me that death could be viewed as a form of healing. When no other means of healing proves up to the challenge, death provides body and soul with much-sought relief. Moreover, death is just one step on our soul's journey to find ultimate peace, so it can be viewed as healing in a cosmic, as well as an immediate, sense.
We found out on Monday, June 22, that Helen's leukemia had returned, and that peace to her would, indeed, come through death, likely within a matter of days, or at most weeks. This was a hard punch to the gut, because the previous month the doctors said that the stem cell transplant had worked and that almost all her bone marrow was the donor's, plus she was finally out of the woods on the lung ailment. Helen was alert and fully appreciated her situation, and although she could not talk because of her trach tube she could write, mouth words, and use sign language. We all had time with her that last week to say what needed to be said. Although it was difficult to watch one so young and so brave face her mortality, that last week with Helen was precious, sacred time.
Helen deteriorated rapidly after being moved from Johns Hopkins to the ICU of a hospital in her home town, according to her wish to die as close to home as possible (home care and even hospice care were out of the question due to the graveness of her condition). When the palliative care team suggested that the time to disconnect the ventilator had come on Friday morning, the whole family let Helen go willingly and lovingly, and we were all there with her when her soul finally passed away. Even through the grief and tears, it was a beautiful, powerful moment -- by far the most sacred moment I have yet experienced. I was incredibly honored to know Helen in life (and will write about how wonderful she was in a later post), and I was equally honored to be present when she departed this life.
I will say, as a final observation, that of everyone affected by Helen's death, she was the strongest and the most serene during that last week. By miles. I hope that for her death really was a form of healing, and that wherever she is now she has peace.
Photograph of Adrianne and Jacob at Congressional Cemetery, by Stewart Harris