“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, 
but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Maya Angelou

The celebration of Life: Birthdays and Deathdays

Most of you may have been in a place to be the joyful recipients of the celebratory “Happy Birthday” song sung to you. Today, we sing that song in different languages, some with different melodies, all over the world, as a way of celebrating birthdays.

In this article, we are going to talk about how we celebrate the life of someone who is in the process of dying or who have died. I invite you to give some thought about how you can celebrate a loved one’s last day – their dying days.  We know that celebrating one’s life is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone you love, while they are still alive.  This honoring of their life can continue even after they have died.  Many people have their own traditions, yet for those who don’t, there are many ways to have a celebration of life.

Here in the United States, we tend to celebrate Birthdays with great ado’s, and any occasion is an opportunity to turn it into a celebration.  In 1940, we spent $27.12 billion on holidays.[1]  As of 2015, we spent more than $631 billion in buying gifts for all occasions [2]. Greeting card companies, gift-wrapping companies, gift box companies, trim & ribbon companies, catalogs of all kinds to buy multitudes of novelty items, celebrating every type of situation under the sun exist to encourage celebrating something – anything. There’s even the Holiday Channel where they celebrate something every day! [3]

Festivals of all kinds and parades are also celebrations and each has their own specific meaning!

Oprah Winfrey said, “The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”[4]  As humans, we generally look forward to celebrations for all sorts of occasions.

So how can we think about celebrations of life for loved ones who are dying or who have recently died? Many kinds of rituals, traditions, and celebrations of the death of a loved one exist in families and cultures throughout the world. A celebration is a creative activity for the purpose of honoring someone, bringing them joy and to feel a sense of happiness for the time spent together.

A Celebration of Life and Death

The first time I was with anyone who was dying was with my friend, Susan, about 10 years ago.  Susan, who was dying of leukemia, asked me to move in with her, her husband, and her 15-year old son.  I lived with them for about a month before she died.  We all knew she was going to die soon.  In those last days, I took her to her radiation and chemo treatments to give her husband a break, until Susan felt she just could not do any more treatments.

In Susan’s final hours, I sat with her, while she lay unconscious, knowing her time was just breaths away. Knowing that hearing is the last sense to go[5], I sang to her, whispering loving things into her ears, played music for her, and just held space for her, wishing her a happy, wondrous journey ahead. I felt so close to her because I knew that she could hear me.

After Susan passed a few moments later, I sang a tune with some special words inside myself, well-wishing her journey to the place of great eternity.

Sometime later, when my mind went back to the tune with the words, I pondered the notion of celebrating life on both ends.  Today, we don’t think twice about celebrating the birth of someone’s life.  Celebrating the death of someone’s life is also honoring them, their memory and everything that person meant to us.  Death is really the other side of birth, and they’re separated by just one breath!

My belief is that a celebration for one’s death is really an act of great honor.  Often time, a dying person’s wishes may even be for their loved ones to host a party with an abundance of their favorite foods and create merriment in their memory – their wish is not to have a sad get-together where everyone cries in sadness, sitting glumly on chairs, and even talking in whispers. It is absolutely immeasurable value for a family member, or a close loved one, to know their dying loved one’s wishes.  It takes much of the guessing game out of “what and how” to honor/commemorate their loved one.

Many dying individuals only wish for simplicity without any fanfare and are not inclined to want to go out with a bang, nor have people fuss.  Their wish releases the living loved ones of any guilt of too much or too little, and in obeying a loved one’s dying wish, you can feel completely free of guilt that you are following their wish as they have desired it.

I knew a wonderful woman who was in her last days of dying of cancer.  It had taken over her body, and she could no longer get up from her bed.  Yet her spirit was indomitable, and she received a bevy of people every day, giving each a memento of their choice from her open closet and her dresser top. She was humorous, laughed with everyone, and even celebrated with a fun get-together with close friends and family.  This is truly how she wanted things to be in her last days.  Only a few days later she was no longer conscious and died just a couple of days later.  It was unbelievable to see the smile on her face, and how serene and at peace, she looked in death.

How to choose to commemorate death is really about a continuance of doing honor to the loved one who has passed.  Can we only celebrate our loved ones after they die?  It’s an act of conscious awareness to make sure you know what your loved one wants in every which way – even beyond their will and testament.

Accepting the Inevitable, Celebration of Life

A few years ago, my friend, Susan, was scheduled for her weekly check-up, and so on a Monday, her husband, Jerry, and I, drove her to the City of Hope.  (I want you to know that the invitation was a statement of utter trust in me, one which made me feel honored and very humbled because these were private times with the family.)

When we arrived at the City of Hope, Susan had some blood work done, and then we waited in the room for the doctor to come in. Her delicate arms looked like a roadmap.  Susan was sitting in her wheelchair, weak and lethargic. The doctor came in and asked her how she was feeling.

Susan’s first words were, “I’m done.  I just can’t do this anymore, doctor A.  I don’t want to suffer any longer.  It’s just too much.”  Neither one of us had ever heard this from Susan because, until that point, Susan had not only been in denial but also holding out with great hope for that magic cure.

Jerry and I just sat there in shock.  Tears came flowing down each of our cheeks, as well as the doctor.  The doctor responded by saying, “I am so sorry, Susan.  There was nothing more I could do.  This kind of lymphoma is so aggressive, I couldn’t control it with any of the treatments we had.   You are such a special person and I have been so honored to treat you. I feel I have failed.”

Then, Susan began to console the doctor.  That was Susan!  She said in her high pitch New Jersey accent, “Don’t worry, doctor, you are the best doctor in the world, and I am so grateful to have had you take care of me.  I know you did the best you could.”

We all cried at the closure Susan needed to complete with her doctor.  The doctor assured her that she would do whatever necessary to make her as comfortable as possible, and promised she would not experience pain.  We spent over ninety minutes together, both crying and laughing. Susan had a great sense of humor.

The doctor told us that inevitably Susan would go to sleep and just never wake up.

A New Celebration of Life Service: The Gathering.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

For several years, Susan gathered together a group of women she felt especially close with, she called, her “sisters”. Especially when she began treatment, we would get together, as much as time allowed, just to chat, and to talk about life.  It was always stimulating, fun and loving.  We all had Susan in common.  There was Sandy, Mary Ann, Nora, Leslie, Sue, Cathy and myself… each with a different, life story, and each from different paths of Susan’s experiences.  Naturally, she had other close friends, but for whatever reason, we were deemed “the sisters,” and so it was.

After visiting with her doctor on that Monday, and with Susan declaring that she had had “enough”, I knew it was urgent to call the sisters together for a very special gathering to say goodbye to Susan, as soon as possible.

On the way home from the City of Hope that same Monday, as Susan’s fragile body lay in the back seat, I suggested to her that we have a gathering with her sisters on Wednesday.  She then said, “No, we can’t have it on Wednesday, Cathy is a psychologist, and she sees clients on Wednesday.  Let’s have it on Friday.”

I said to her, “Susan, what if you die on Friday?”  She said to me, “I’m going to die on Friday?”  I said to her, “Well, I don’t know, but wouldn’t you feel bad if you did die on Friday, and you didn’t have the gathering on Wednesday?  If people can drop what they are doing to attend a funeral, your sisters can certainly drop whatever they are doing to say goodbye, while you’re still alive, and tell you how much they love you, TO you, instead of ABOUT you at your funeral.”

From everything I observed and was told by the doctor, I “knew” Susan would not be coherent enough by Friday since her mind was already checking out rapidly.

Usually, when someone is dying, we don’t get the opportunity to share WITH that person what we would say ABOUT that person at that person’s funeral, for so many reasons.  Mostly because WE feel uncomfortable, and because usually the family doesn’t think of it, or chooses not to.   Well, this time was going to be different!  I was determined to get Susan’s sisters together to attend a “gathering,” a celebration of Susan’s life, and our lives with her creating a sacred a place/time where these special women in Susan’s life could tell her how much they loved her and how much she meant to them.  It was an opportunity to share what they felt about her TO her.

When I got home, I immediately got on the phone, and called the sisters, telling them about the “awakening gathering” for Susan to be held on that Wednesday.  They each sensed the urgency, and within twenty minutes, every single woman, said, “I’m in!  I’ll do whatever it takes to change my schedule to be there.” Even her friend, Fran, another extended sister, flew in from Kansas City that morning to return that afternoon.

And so, it was set, Wednesday it would be.  The day we would celebrate Susan’s life and express the love we had for her.  I suggested that each person bring along a little trinket or button or something small enough to place into a silk voile bag, so she could take the bag of love with her on her journey.

A New Celebration of Life Service: The Gathering.

We decked out her dining room, just like she liked it.  It looked elegant and festive, just like she liked it.  The table was covered with Susan’s favorite tablecloth and plates, and Sandy (the designer of the group) brought statues of women and jellybeans and everything that would sing PARTY!  Susan loved entertaining, so I wanted to make it the best last hurrah, EVER!

It took some doing to get Susan down the stairs, but we made it.  She sat in her wheelchair at the head of the table.  Thank God, she was coherent enough on that day to hear what was being said, and be able to feel the love that was being bestowed upon her.  (I was so glad I relied on my intuition and experience to not delay this gathering even 24 hours more – Susan was fading that quickly.) Susan heard everyone’s words and was touched by everyone’s hearts, and we all knew she “got it” by the beautiful smile on her face.  We laughed.  We cried.  We celebrated Susan… ourselves… and life itself!

It doesn’t take much to let someone know how much you love them, how much you care about them… that they matter… that they make a difference in life, just by living.  It doesn’t take much!  If you have someone in your life who is dying… create something wonderful for that person.  What else is there to “do”?  And, why wait?  Tell them now, and create something wonderful around that experience!

One by one, each woman sat at her side, holding her delicate hand, either reading something she wrote aloud or expressing in words what she felt from the heart. Susan knew this was a special moment.  She knew we were just loving her up. Best of all, it gave Susan the opportunity to tell us how special we were to her, which was equally as important.

A New Celebration of Life Service: The Gathering.

It was the most beautiful celebration and extraordinary healing experience any one of us had ever experienced.  It touched all of us deeply. We were celebrating Susan’s life, “Susan style,” and letting her know the impact she made on each one of us, as her friend, her “sister”.  It was poignant and life-changing.  Everyone said they had never participated in anything like that before, ever! Whenever we think of that day, we feel it all over again.

That was the last time Susan was out of bed.  Susan never came downstairs after that, never sat up in a wheelchair again, went into a coma, and died on Saturday.

So, in the words of John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society said, “Carpe Diem, Seize the Day.” [6] Celebrate yourself and the ones you love, and remember, life and death are just a breath away.  We are born with one to inhale, and we die with one exhale.  One breath.  One life.  What we do with all the breaths in between is up to us.

Don’t wait until the end of life to create many celebrations of life for yourself and for the people you love, while you/they are living, so you can show them how much you love and appreciate them and they can show you.  Let someone celebrate you!  You just never know when that moment will come that will take your breath away!

It’s your life.  Enjoy the journey. And remember to bring love into everything you do.