The following piece is the fulltext article of a presentation given to the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies in New Orleans, August 2012
Witnessing is an archetypal and deeply human behavior, recognized to be of supreme value since the earliest experiences of our human ancestors.
The moment of the birth of a child is the moment when we get to witness the birth of Psyche into the body. Right then, Psyche herself sings her song of absolute joy at being born on earth. All who she touches laugh and play at the sight and sound of a newborns laughter. The young one explores and finds joy in so many things. But then after a year or two, the child grows, the demands of society creep in, and begin to box in the Psyche of the little one. School, social norms, and eventually work and family…the various demands of daily living call upon each of us to pay attention. Eventually, though as we move closer to the end of our life span one passes through the mythic threshold from healthy and ill into the landscape of dying. A place where many of the demands of daily living fall away and much like at the beginning of life, Psyche is again free of many concerns.
And it is at this time that we are able to bear witness to something absolutely exquisite: Psyche’s long lament of love that she sings as she prepares to separate from the body that she has shared for a lifetime.
…psyche’s final farewell. It is here, in this unique landscape, defined by the time of dying, that we and our human ancestors
have been drawn to touch the transcendent, the realm of the sacred, the realm of the divine, the place of the angels.
The mythic vessel that contains the time of dying has long been filled with mystery, curiosity, trepidation, sacred language and perhaps most of all, unanswerable questions. My talk this afternoon will work to explore this landscape: the landscape of the time of dying. First, the confusion and questions of the patient as he or she crosses the threshold into this new landscape.
In 2009, Dr. Ajay Bhatnagar, an oncologist at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, reported that Ninety-five percent of patients wanted their doctor to be honest about their chances of a cure and how long they could expect to live.
How long do I have to live?
The question itself is pregnant with the fear of death and yet, paradoxically, the very same question holds within it an element of hope. And what about the element of time, often a hidden aspect of our lives.
From this very first question asked by a patient, the experience of time is brought into the discussion. Time has long been mythologized in human experience. From Cronos, , Father Time…Aion, the Phoenician god of time and eternity.
In this mythic vessel of the time of dying, there are two distinctly different sorts of time being lived. For the one whose life is ending there is a very individual circadian rhythmic time determined by the physiologic clock of the body; a primal or circular sense of time very much in tune with the lived experience rather than particular hours of the day. Then there is the time marked by the passing of the hours, the minutes, the seconds on a clock…the sort of time that allows us to schedule time together, as well as the scheduling of nurses and caretakers. Encompassing both is the lived experience of time…a somewhat elastic experience. When someone becomes ill and is hospitalized, it is a common experience for the person to lose track of linear time. Psyche in this time, the time of ultimate crisis of the body, appears to pay less attention to linear time and moves in her own rhythms. At the same time, the psyche of the witness is caught living in both worlds of time simultaneously. He or she is on a schedule in one part of life, but, in order to truly be present to the dying, to truly witness, must pay careful attention to allow their own body to ebb and flow with the pace of the one who is dying. These two experiences of time are woven together into the tapestry that is a part of the sacred vessel that defines the time of dying.
In many cultures, the end of the time of dying, the time of one’s death, is believed to be divine knowledge, attributed to, determined by, and known only to the gods. From the ancient Mesopotamiam gods Anu, Ea, and Enlil to the Fates of ancient Greece : the Moirae; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe time was created by God and that the time of one’s death, can only be known and determined by God.
So, Faith or spirituality is also present in this mythic vessel. Indeed the teachings of many of the faith traditions consider death and the time of dying to be worthy of sacred consideration. The divine, elusive, and much mythologized nature of time itself, joins with mystery of death as one approaches the final threshold of this life.
From time immemorial, the time of dying has been described as a time of great pain, emotional &/or physical…the pain of Psyche in crisis, the psyche of the one who is dying in relationship with the psyche of the loved ones left behind. Our human ancestors felt it to be profoundly important that this time of life be witnessed and they expressed that sentiment over and over again in their writing.
From the earliest epic known to humankind the time of dying has been highlighted as being both sacred and unique. The epic of Gilgamesh, the first epic known to modernity, was written in approximately 2750 B.C. and exists in varying lengths and languages written over the next 1000 years! The story in it longest and most complete version, is 12 tablets long and it highlights the time of dying by both its placement in the exact center of the text, and the devotion of an entire tablet to the process.
The 1st 6 tablets of the epic tell of the exploits and adventures of the greatly mythologized King of Uruk, King Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the forest dweller and soul mate who becomes his best friend. The turning point of this story is the dying process of Enkidu. The gods having become angered by the exploits and power of this pair and they decide that Enkidu must die. He becomes fatally ill and over the course of tablets 6 and 7, the reader is brought to the bedside to witness the dying process of this greatly mythologized hero.
In a dream, Enkidu witnesses the council of the gods as they determine that he will die. When he awakes, he expresses his anger at those who have wronged him. After his rant, the god Shamash, a god who personifies the mystery of consciousness, appears to him. This God of supreme knowledge reminds Enkidu of the many blessings that were bestowed upon him during his lifetime. After which Enkidu moves from furiously cursing those who have wronged him and begins to speak his blessings of those very same individuals. He accepts that his death is the will of the gods and the reader is privy to the first experience of the time of dying recorded in words… one imagined over 4000 years ago.
In the dying process of this ancient and mythologized man, we hear early echoes of Kubler-Ross and the stages of dying. And indeed, throughout historical literature, we read the same words and experiences repeated and repeated in the words of dying individuals. Significant dreams remembered, a lot of sleeping, anger, acceptance, divine experiences…all the responses of the human psyche as she travels through the crisis of death of the body.
Throughout the time of Enkidu’s dying, Gilgamesh sits steadfastly by the side of his friend, expressing profound pain, confusion and such grief that the reader cannot help but be moved by his pain. Gilgamesh questions, he weeps, he speaks of his fear of loss as well as the fear of his own death…his words reveal that he too is living with his psyche in crisis. As readers, we too are witnessing what it means to be present to the dying process. And even though it is only Enkidu who will die now, Gilgamesh, in all of his humanity, takes in deeply that there will be a time when he too will die. He and we have learned what it looks and feels like to move through the dreaded and feared threshold that takes one from the vibrancy of life, through the sacred realm of the dying to ones death. He has been changed. And so have we. In this sacred landscape, defined by ones deepest bodily truths, the finitude of the human body is presented to the witness and the reader in all of its richness. The powerful effect of the witness on the one dying and the effect of the dying on the witness is fully in evidence in this ancient story.
The power of witnessing sickness, old age, and death is what compelled Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, to leave the palace of his father and seek a way to ease the human suffering inherent at the end of the life trajectory. Indeed, Buddhism, with its focus on impermanence as well as the suggested daily practice of meditating on ones own death, emerged from Shakyamuni’s own internal struggle with the powerful emotions of having witnessed the end of the life trajectory.
From time immemorial, the human psyche has created and used sacred language to speak of times of crisis. And with the knowledge of the sacred nature of the experience for both the one dying as well as for the witness, it is possible to change the ways we care for the dying in our own communities. But to do so, one must explore the myriad faith traditions that inform the time of dying.
According to the Pew Research Foundation, over 80% of Americans currently self identify as being of the Abrahamic faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
Attending to the sick is one of the few instances in Orthodox Judaism in which the obligation to the sick is more important than keeping the Sabbath. In this tradition, the oldest of the 3 Abrahamic faiths, it is recognized to be a Talmudic dictate, a commandment given the power of Gd himself in a culture where there is no more supreme and powerful voice than that of YHWH…that one attend the dying. Indeed, the attendant at the bedside is understood to be engaged in an act of divine communion and prayer with God Himself by virtue of being present to the dying individual.
Followers of the Islamic faith are instructed to read the Qu’ran at the bedside of the dying. This tradition is exquisite in that it not only brings the bedside visitor into the room, but, for the follower of Islam, the practice of reading aloud gives voice to the sacred words of Allah himself. Actually, reading sacred texts at the bedside of the dying also brings to mind the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead from the Buddhist tradition.
In many traditions, the world was created by the word, the breath of the soul. Reading the holy texts at the bedside is but one way to bring the wisdom of our ancestors, through the divine breath of the human voice, into the room.
It is an extraordinary concept to recognize that in our busy culture the act of witnessing, merely being present to the sick is not only enough, but, in this unique time of life, being present to witness is sacred.
But, what if no one is able to be present? Or perhaps the one who is dying asks to be left alone. How do we make sense of that when it is one we love so dearly. If that occurs, or even if it doesn’t, Psyche, in union with the body, does some remarkable things.
It is common that dying individuals see people such as deceased friends or relatives whom they have known during their lifetime. (Indeed, the Kabbalah describes this clearly.) Other people speak of visions of angels or newly beloved mates as the end of one’s own life approaches. Two wonderful examples I will share what I think is a totally darling stories on the seeing of visions…one woman told me of the last months of her Mom’s life. As her Mom moved closer to dying, she was sleeping a bit more, a fatigue often seen in those moving closer to their death. Well, this lovely woman, in her late 80’s, began to speak to her 2 daughters of her boyfriend and her cat. Her one daughter thought the old woman had gone completely nuts…because to anyone looking in, this was an elderly widow who had lived alone for years, and whose life had shrunk down to a small small room in a nursing home. Yet, in spite of her daughter’s protestations, she would describe this man, the love of her life, and when anyone came in to her room she would caution them to not let the cat out. Indeed, her dream lover, her perfect mate, had managed to move from only sleep dreaming to her waking dreams too, and she was happier than she had been in years. In Jungian terms, she was living the Heiros Gamos, the divine marriage. One daughter was desperate to treat these hallucinations. But her other daughter was thrilled to see her mother so happy and would ask her to tell of the adventures with her boyfriend, what they had for dinner, etc etc. Ultimately, the Mom died quite happy, in the arms of her perfect lover, with the cat by her side.
In some fashion, her body had created this perfect man of her dreams… and this fortunate woman didn’t die alone at all. Can we fault the one daughter? Of course not.
Another is the woman with her ship captain. The first is a nice example of the heiros gamos that has been seen to occur in the times near death. In the latter, we see the ship motif, we might recognize the figure of Charon ,the ferry boat driver of ancient mythologies. The one who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx.
As to seeing angels, an excellent example can be found Two thousand years after the story of Gilgamesh, as the end of the life of the great patriarch Abraham was imagined in a 1st c. piece of diasporic humor entitled The Testament of Abraham. Abraham did not leave a testament in the biblical traditions, thus leaving room for Bards of the day to create the story that they imagined to be the end of the life of this great man. The earliest versions of this story emerge in the 1st c. AD, in the Mesopotamian basin, and the story exists in over 2 dozen written versions stemming from seven different linguistic sources, the most recent version stemming from Romania in the 18-19th c.
Why does this particular story matter all these years later? Because as recently as 2002, over 80% of Americans self identified as being of the Abrahamic faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Thus the way that the dying time of the man recognized to be the patriarch of these three great traditions has been imagined for almost 2 millenia lends insight into the ways many of the cultures which inform our own, imagined the dying time of “an ideal man.”
The story takes the reader to the crossroads of the Oak of Mamre, where Abraham has pitched his tent. To Abraham, the archangel Michael appears with the directive from YHWH to “speak to Abraham about his death and to put his affairs in order.” As with Enkidu, it is imagined to be a Gd who speaks to the one who is dying to inform him or her that the dying time is near. Whether in dream as with Enkidu, or via Angelic messenger as with Abraham, the voice of Gd makes itself known in a way that the dying individual can comprehend. Angelic beings maintain the all-important link between the sacred and the profane, and so once again, the reader is reminded of the sacred nature of this time of life.
The experience of seeing and speaking with an angel or a deceased loved one is so common now at the end of life as to merit mention on the website of the National Cancer Institute. The website gives instruction to the caregiver to not be surprised if a dying individual seems to “hallucinate” about the presence of dead individuals in the room and the website suggests that the attendant contact a chaplain if they need to discuss it further.
For Abraham, as with Enkidu, a message from the divine precedes the actual moment of death and we experience the grace of being given the time to make amends and to prepare ourselves for our final moments in this body on earth.
And while the Buddhist traditions do believe in the existence of celestial beings, the belief system does not include the Abrahamic idea of Angels. In keeping with the Buddhist traditions… the Zen Hospice Project suggests that if your loved one is experiencing hallucinations ( at the end of his or her life) simply be present to what is happening; it may be appropriate to just listen. Don’t try to pass judgement, or be the rational voice that angels or deceased relatives aren’t in the room…after all, how do you know?”
These sorts of hallucinatory experiences tend to be pathologized as abnormal when they occur at any other time of life. But it seems that visual hallucinations are natural expressions of the body at the end of life. Whether the dis-integrating body is causative of these hallucinations is not clear. But what can be said with certitude is that these visions often occur at the end of life in individuals with no prior history of hallucinatory events. So Even now, in the 21st c, in this age of hyper rationalism, it is the language of the sacred provides the vocabulary to voice the mysterious experiences that shroud the time of dying.
So much of life is lived in those months, days, and moments as one approaches death, the attendant can learn a great deal at that time. A time that has frightened the wits out of many of us in its inevitability, in the sorrow and sadness of our final farewell and yet a time so sacred as to be witnessed by the Gods. Is it easy to bear witness to a death? No, not at all. If it were, it wouldn’t need to be a commandment. And yet,
our human ancestors to have given the power of the voice of God to a commandment to do so. Perhaps our ancestors knew that witnessing and ministering to the sick and dying was so primal, so important for the survival of society, that the commandment was understood to be given from YHWH himself.
Bearing witness to the end of a life did then and does now call us to be deeply human, to be open to the mystery of this magical time of life… to have the courage to listen to the teachings of our ancestors and recognize that the time of dying as a time that is sacred and unique. The wisdom literature handed down to us from millions of people over thousands of years teaches that witnessing is a moral imperative.
Sit at the bedside, become the hands and voice of Gd on earth. How can we do anything less?
Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body. Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of the million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.
– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying