This week, a colleague's father died. Last night, I sat with her and her mother, her roommate, and a friend. I wanted to impart perfect wisdom to my friend and soothe her aching heart. Instead we shared crumbling conversation that made us feel alternately normal and nauseous. Upon leaving, I knew that being there for her was what really mattered, but I hoped that she would not rely solely on my fumbling for consolation - that she had good resources to process her feelings, whether privately or with loved ones. Graceful Passages: A companion for living and dying
is the resource I will give to her.
Created by two musicians, Michael Stillwater and Gary Remal Malkin, Graceful Passages
is a versatile set of tools. It consists of a book of messages about death and dying from esteemed spiritual leaders and thinkers such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Thich Nhat Hanh, Arun Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi's grandson) and his wife Sunanda, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Native American spiritualist Jyoti, and Ram Dass. In addition to the book, the collection includes a CD with the messages read by their authors over gentle music, and a second CD with the gentle music only, designed to calm the mind and ease the passage from life to death.
Whether it be used to prepare for a funeral service - providing readings and inspiring eulogies - or as a therapeutic tool for a hospice patient, Graceful Passages
is an ideal resource for hospice and health care workers, guidance counselors, clergy, and therapists - really anyone who works with people who are dying, providing care for the dying or grieving.
The heart of Graceful Passages
is the messages and each contributes a vision of death and an interpretation of its meaning that I found to be of value. Each listener will no doubt have her or his favorites. Here are some of mine:
Because of the emotional impact the "messages" can have, the guidelines discourage listeners from playing them in the car. I must admit that I listened to them first while driving. The prelude seemed predictable. I imagined the CD would provide a nice, new age experience, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then I heard Lew Epstein's "Letting Yourself be Loved." His voice is deep and rich and his words hit me as only truth can. His message is this: knowing that you have been loved and that you have loved in this lifetime is what matters. Epstein discourages the common practice of judging others, and ourselves and encourages us to shift our focus to how we are loved and have loved. The message is so good for people at all stages of life and even feels uplifting. Abruptly, however, it shifts into a "letting go" phase. Epstein begins to list the people we will leave behind when we die. "Farewell my son. Farewell my daughter. Farewell my father. Farewell my mother." That's when I began to bawl. "Thank you for letting me love you," intones Epstein. Beware of driving while listening to this CD.
The next message that moved me was "The Gift of Life," delivered by the Episcopal priest Alan Jones. Again, such a dear, warm voice. He, too, speaks of the importance of understanding that we are loved, identifying God as the source of endless and unconditional love for all. "You are part of a love story. You are desired and longed for... you are held in the arms of love." He closes by reading a prayer: "Oh my God, you are here. Oh my God, I am here. Oh, my God we are here. And always, always, always you love us. Always you love us." A somewhat sappy rendition of "The River is Wide" pipes beneath his words and made me feel like an unwilling viewer of the film Titanic
. But the kindness, beauty, and truth that I heard in Jones' message melted my cynicism.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her message entitled "Unconditional Love," speaks as one who knows the truth about what comes with death. Her message is a beautiful one. "Look forward to your transition," she opens in a thick and weary voice, "It is the first time you will experience unconditional love." What I found most powerful in her message was her vision of the last judgment: "When you make your transition, you are asked two things basically: how much love you have been able to give and receive and how much service you have rendered. And you will know every consequence of every deed.you've ever [done], and that is symbolically speaking going through hell. but you will also see how a nice act of kindness has touched hundreds of lives that you're totally unaware of." The thought to me is both chilling (for I fear the unknown impact of my actions) and thrilling (for I want to know truth). I found myself praying for such insight, however sobering it might be. She ends as she began, "Look forward to the transition. It's the most beautiful experience you can ever imagine."
I invite you to listen and find the voices and messages that speak truth to you. It is probably wise to be in a safe place for crying (or cheering - often an equally appropriate response). But if, like me, you find that it is often on the road that you have the space and solitude to listen to words like these, I won't tell. I will be looking for you, out my window, fellow traveler, tuning into what matters, what lies ahead of all of us. If I don't see you on the road, perhaps I'll meet you in the end. Graceful Passages
has made me believe it's not unlikely - in fact, that it's something we have to look forward to.