People are usually curious about or uncomfortable with my choice to sit with the dying.
The truth is that being invited to share someone's space as they prepare to leave this world is a great honor. It's an opportunity to be of service in one of life's two most profound moments. In between our first breath and last, we live and love, are hurt and heal and get caught up in life's dramas; but the moment the soul leaves the body is sincere, honest and extraordinary. Even for those of us not dying, it challenges our ego attachments and demands that we grow.
To be a calm and healing presence for the dying, we must overcome our fear of death. As a healing medium, this was especially hard when my mother was dying. We did healing sessions daily, and while the quality of her life improved, her cancer kept progressing. I had been using my healing mediumship for years to effectively help people—chronic migraines disappeared, seizures stopped, emotional wounds healed––so I railed against God and the spirit world for failing her now and demanded they make her better.
It was absurd really. Healing mediums don't do the actual healing––we hold the space for healing to flow from the source and get out of the way so it can go where it's needed. Nonetheless, my ego demanded it go where I wanted for fear of what would happen if it didn't. I was holding onto my mother by holding onto my fear.
There's no doubt about it––death terrifies us. The documentary Flight from Death investigated the relationship between human violence and fear of death. It showed that subconscious reminders of death motivated a significant number of people to gravitate towards negativity, violence and xenophobia.
Historically, we were surrounded by high infant mortality, death in childbirth, plagues and influenza, which normalized death and made us aware of our own mortality from a very young age. These days, however, we try to banish it from view. The dying are often removed to hospices, and the sick are often subjected to medical advancements that prolong the hour of their death but do not necessarily improve the quality of their lives. Instead of, for example, laying out the body in the house in the tradition of the Irish wake or carrying our dead to the eternal funeral pyres along the Ganges, we have created a sophisticated funeral industry to do it for us. No wonder we have trouble facing death head on.
Releasing my ego-driven desire to thwart my mother's death was a bristling journey filled with the guilt of an adult and the anxiety of a child faced with losing her mother. Yet, it was only when I finally accepted that I had to let her go that the real healing began. Not focusing on what I wanted at the expense of what she needed opened a space for us to be honest and heal a relationship that had at times been thorny. No longer solely focused on the humiliation of a body breaking down, she began to talk about people in this world and the next as if one were as present as the other. It seemed the healing was creating an openness to what was to come.
"I keep seeing your Auntie Theresa," she said one evening of my aunt who had passed the previous year. "She's giving me the thumbs up. What do you think she means?"
My mother had never spoken openly about seeing or sensing our dearly departed. In my childhood, she had never been comfortable with my conversations with long dead relatives of whom I'd never heard but could name and describe. Now, neither of us could deny that they were gathering to take her home. Far from being frightened, their familiarity comforted and allayed any lingering fear that she, or indeed, I had about letting go.
"Will I be ok?" she asked.
"You'll be ok," I said.
We can easily fill the space the dying need with platitudes to assuage our own terror of death: "You look great" or "the doctor says you'll be fine." On some level, they know the truth and seeing our fear and helplessness, they are, or at least feign, bravery for our benefit. Instead of allowing them to fill the room with their honesty, we fill it with our lies, stealing the space they need to die consciously.
Mediums are the midwives of death they say, so I'm often asked why I don't give the dying messages from the spirit world or lecture them on the joys of the afterlife. I do neither because I'm not there to orchestrate the deathbed conversion of an atheist or offer platitudes to a believer. My role is to allow this moment be whatever they need it to be. If asked, I may reassure them that they are in good hands, that they are loved and that this is not the end, but mostly I just take their right hand until they are aware of someone in the spirit world taking their left.
Bearing silent witness to a person's courage in their final hour has been a blessing of privileged moments and profound experiences. The gift I have offered them is simply a calm presence. The gift they have offered me is freedom from the fear of dying and thus the space to live fully, mindfully and with compassion.
Karen Frances McCarthy is a published author and former political journalist and embedded war correspondent. She is an accredited Spiritualist medium, is writing her second book about science and religion and is preparing for a PhD in Religious Studies. Like her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/karenfrancesmccarthy or Follow on Twitter @bykarenfrances