Living with terminal illness, confronting death, transforms us with a magnitude and intensity beyond anything we can imagine in the apparent safety and security of our health. It is a long, painful, frightening, and lonely course that strips us of so much of who we thought ourselves to be--appearances we took for granted, abilities we always assumed, roles in life with which we've identified. Even the capacity to remain in cramped negative emotions slips away. In our dying, all that has held our sense of "me" together becomes unraveled.

All these losses are frightening to contemplate and profoundly difficult to endure. And yet, surprisingly, at some point in the process of living at the edge of life--for some sooner, for some later--people seem to discover there is also a curious liberation and newfound grace in the transformations they are experiencing. In a deeply interior way, this can be a profound and beautiful passage that empties the mind, opens the heart, and expands our awareness into the landscape of Spirit. It is my conviction that dying is far more a spiritual event than a medical one, and it is my hope that the spiritual dimensions of death and dying will soon be met with widespread and heartfelt recognition.

It is my conviction that dying is far more a spiritual event than a medical one...

I spent six years working with hospice patients. I have had the opportunity to be with hundreds of people as they neared death and as they died, the chance to sit with them, listen to them, breathe with them, and meditate with them in their last days, hours, and moments.

Such vigils disclose an awareness of further and deeper dimensions to life. Sitting by the bedside of someone dying, you become very aware that there is not only this world of bodies and things we know so well but also an already interpenetrating, vast, streaming, more subtle world saturated with the sacred. When someone is dying, a veil is parted, almost literally, and we are granted a glimpse of the sacred as it reveals itself. It becomes overwhelmingly apparent that we are spiritual beings and that the awareness of the dying person is naturally expanding into the radiant grace of Spirit.

As we die, ordinary people move in a radically accelerated way through the same profound transformation known to saints, sages, and mystics throughout history. Chaos, Surrender, and Transcendence are the words I use to describe the psychospiritual stages of dying. Chaos includes all the turbulent twists and turns we experience in our psyche as we resist and then try to come to terms with the closeness of our own death. Surrender is the turning point, the moment when we realize that what we had been resisting is, in fact, the infinite Light of Being for which we've always longed. Transcendence is the experience of grace shining in and through us; it manifests itself as a deep sense of safety, peace, and purpose, and in the dying person's increased capacity for love.

Although fraught with sometimes unspeakable physical assaults, unimaginably difficult emotions, and psychologically inconceivable concepts (the "end" of "me"), the chapter in a human life that is initiated by the perceived tragedy of a terminal prognosis seems to culminate at the moment of death with an experience of grace. This grace in dying appears to be a universal phenomenon, occurring anytime from several weeks before death to the very moment of the last few breaths. The Nearing Death Experience is a stunningly unique phenomenon in each life, marked by the slowing and then the stilling of the physical body, the emptying of the separate sense of self, and the emergence of Spirit, of grace.

As we die, ordinary people move in a radically accelerated way through the same profound transformation known to saints, sages, and mystics...

One daughter I worked with in hospice witnessed her father's transformation while caring for him in the last few weeks of his life. She described the power and awe of watching her father, whom she had described as a resisting, angry, controlling personality, find, in her beautiful phrase, his "spiritual grounding." She felt that at the end of his life, he found what he had spent all the decades before secretly seeking: surrender, peacefulness, relaxation, and openness to love--both given and received, both human and divine. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the transformation this way: "Enlightenment for a wave is the moment that the wave realizes that it is water. At that moment, all fear of death disappears."

If you love someone who is dying, beyond the physical caregiving, listen with your whole being, pray together, simply be together. Allow his or her attention to move toward the very center of Being, its natural direction near death. It may comfort you to know, as your loved one will discover, that deep spiritual transformation is going on within that beloved body. Stay as close as you can to your loved one during all the stages of Chaos, Surrender, and Transcendence. This is their soul work and can be yours as well. This will not change the excruciating pain of grief, but you will know that you participated in a transformation that is inexpressible, unforgettable, and beautifully real.

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