My beloved friend Jim is nearly 92 years old. His mind is sharp and keen though his vision, hearing, and mobility are weaker every day. Jim doesn’t have a major illness. He’s just losing energy and appetite. A few weeks ago, he decided to enter hospice and forego any further medical interventions in whatever might go awry in his weary body.
A group of people who love Jim recently came together to help him mark this important transition – his conscious turning toward dying. I’ve attended many “memorial-services-in-advance” for people who know their time is limited. This event was different. It was more like a Blessing Way, a Navajo tradition that honors and prepares a woman about to give birth. The Blessing Ways I have attended have consisted of a gathering of the expectant mother’s female friends and family members. She is pampered, supported, and surrounded by beauty. The ceremony acknowledges that she is entering the mysterious territory of birth and motherhood – that she is about to be forever changed.
In a similar way, we gather with Jim in his apartment to honor and support him as he enters his dying time. There is a large contingent of old friends from his liberal Catholic church. Four of his seven children and their spouses are there as well as a few friends. His daughter’s dog wanders around his room, gathering head scratches.
The event is an informal religious service – a kind of last rites delivered by the community instead of a priest. After some opening readings and songs, we are invited to offer Jim a blessing. Each person steps forward and anoints his head with a bit of rose oil as they speak words of gratitude and good wishes for Jim’s journey ahead.
Jim has difficulty hearing many of the readings, but the songs are loud enough for him to hear and join in with gusto. Though his breath is short, his strong baritone carries on with sure harmony. He is the only one in the room who knows all of the verses of “How Great Thou Art.” We have a good laugh about that.
Finally Jim offers his blessing to us. He raises his beautiful, bent hands and begins the familiar blessing from the Old Testament: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you…” From there he launches into his own words. “May you always look for the goodness in everyone you meet. And may you always remember how wonderful you are and how loved.”
We share more joyful singing, bid adieu to a smiling Jim, and disperse with full hearts and damp eyes.
I look forward to bringing this ritual to other friends who are facing their dying….to mark this profound choice in beauty and community. The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, created a blessing for just such an occasion. It was part of Jim’s gathering and will travel with me to many others in the future.
By John O’Donohue
I pray that you will have the blessing
Of being consoled and sure about your death.
May you know in your soul
There is no need to be afraid.
When your time comes, may you have
Every blessing and strength you need.
May there be a beautiful welcome for you
In the home you are going to.
You are not going somewhere strange,
Merely back to the home you have never left.
May you live with compassion
And transfigure everything
Negative within and about you.
When you come to die,
May it be after a long life.
May you be tranquil
Among those who care for you.
May your going be sheltered
And you welcome assured.
May your soul smile
In the embrace
Of your Anam Cara (loosely defined as “soul friend”).