Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Written for Ally at the Spiritual Care Centre and Dzogchen Beara...

The death of a loved one can be prepared for, can be talked about in readiness for the great event…but it is hard to predict the immediate reaction to losing that person. We will all have different expectations of how we will cope and we usually manage to muddle through somehow. The busyness of funerals and the organisation of death’s details keep us occupied for a few days and we get by on sheer adrenaline but even those times are punctured by great waves of despair that rob us of rational thought…when all we can focus on is breathing the next breath without screaming.

The days after the funeral consume us; we awake to a tremendous emptiness, everything seems flat and featureless and bleak. Friends and family want to help but often don’t know how to…and so we put on a brave face and crumble into pieces in private. If the loved one was a partner then the loss is there every time you wake up alone and go to sleep alone; there is no longer the warmth of an enveloping embrace to wash away your fears and anxieties; and sometimes you forget…just for a moment perhaps…maybe driving home from work or turning to smile at an empty space …you forget they’re dead and the pain is fresh and raw and unbearable. Ridiculous things cause the pain: a song you both loved; a TV programme you always watched together; a flower blooming in the garden that they will never see…

So what could help us to endure the loss? I think that will always depend upon who have you lost and how you lost them. For most people, the chance to share memories is important…to feel that you aren‘t expected to forget the dead; to talk about our fears and the moments leading up to the death, the illness, the happy times…we need the opportunity to just sit in silence with someone who makes no demands on us to talk if we don’t want to. We need someone who doesn’t turn away from us and who keeps checking in on us…a voice at the end of a phone who keeps in touch. We need permission to feel that we can laugh without everyone assuming we’re over our loss; to find joy in sunsets and smiles while still holding on to the love that gave meaning to our lives…all I know is that this journey is as individual as the bereaved person themselves; there are no maps to follow as we learn to live with the loss that has stolen away our future and our hopes.

All of which sounds dreadfully unhelpful for anyone wanting a practical way of coping…but maybe there are a few things that might help.

When I returned to Dzogchen Beara after Gordon died, I was returning to friends and a place that we had both loved deeply. Those relationships are what count…if people come to find peace then there is peace in abundance. If they come to find comfort then they need the human dimension: the smiles and hugs and warmth that the people of Dzogchen Beara radiate; the little kindnesses that count whether it’s eating with the community or having someone make sure you have tea and biscuits when you arrive. Regardless of the jaw-dropping scenery of sky and sea, the heart of Dzogchen Beara is its people: the welcome in the shop, the greetings when you are walking around…the sheer love of the place that makes it so very special. I know that was what we missed when we were in England and what we looked forward to most when we came back “home”

Perhaps I might have been left on my own for too much of the time when I returned without Gordon: I must admit that I missed the stream of visitors that we’d had before…the popping in for a chat or a coffee. Perhaps people stayed away because they didn’t want to intrude…perhaps that’s why I wanted to do a last film piece for the Centre: to show that I still had something to say…that to survive is sometimes just as courageous as to die fearlessly as Gordon did. Whatever the reason, it was a plea to still be thought of as part of the community, a need to belong to something that mattered.

Rinpoche talks about the need to be present with the dying because they face losing everything; the bereaved lose everything yet are expected to carry on after just a few weeks. Everyone who works at DzB could be made aware of those who visit after a bereavement so that they too can be present in every encounter…if the volunteers change between visits, you feel a bit lost and search around for faces that recognise you and know your story but maybe that’s a bit of a tall order in the real world.

Younger folk or teenagers might enjoy being befriended or invited to evening sessions in the Hostel. Courses on “Facing Loss” suggest surrendering your feelings and opening your freshly butchered heart to strangers; just the chance to be normal for a short time with people your age who know about your loss but won’t make a big deal out of it, is a blessing for those who don’t have the mechanisms to cope yet. Open, friendly people were important to our children after Gordon died…no pressure to talk unless they wanted to; no expectations of what would happen if they did.

So, finally, it seems to boil down to the courage to be rejected again and again until the bereaved take the leap of faith needed to accept help in whatever form they need…and we need others to show that courage for us until we are ready; not to turn away with a sigh of relief when we refuse the second time but to continue to be there for us for as long as it takes (whether we are at DzB or back home) We need you to realise that our future has been wiped clean; that we stand at a crossroads with no map to guide us and no loved one to comfort us…we are lost and alone and terrified. Give us time and understanding; give us love and companionship when we think we have none; lend us your hearts while ours are broken and be patient with us. One day, we will have the strength to try to stand on our own…be our supporting arm while we regain the confidence to walk on our new path.

The Amazing Gordoni…a unique life and an incredible death

Sometimes, if we are lucky, we are gifted a soul-mate as a companion in our journey through life. Sometimes, if we are really lucky, we can help that soul-mate through the gates of this life to the worlds beyond. I counted myself blessed to be have been able to share that journey towards death with Gordon Francis, the love of my lives.

Gordon’s life was a kaleidoscope of joy and sorrow…as many people’s are. He hand-reared lion cubs; stood for Parliament and Lord Sutch’s Monster Raving Looney Party/ Crokodile Tears/Rainbow Alliance and was a gifted guitarist who could weave musical tapestries of overwhelming beauty. He was loved by all who knew him and grew into a brave and courageous individual who stoically endured physical and emotional pain as his body crumbled with spondylosis.

I was his friend for over twenty years - a witness to the glorious flights of lunacy and sheer abandon he delighted in. To be in Gordon’s company was to be enthralled by his infectious enthusiasm for life and its absurdities. We became partners in 2001 (it was like being asked out by the most popular boy in school!) and married in May, 2003. Every bride knows that her wedding will be the happiest day of her life…but I knew it would be the first of many. We never argued, never bickered…our only concern was for the happiness of each other. Feeling that life would flow joyfully into an old age where we would stroll hand in hand along beaches, we were completely and utterly happy.

Gordon’s diagnosis of advanced lung cancer shattered any hopes of a long term future..

I felt the core of my being crumble as the reality of his illness sunk in…and yet, in spite of that heart-stopping despair, life carried on. We talked about our fears and, as Gordon fought his cancer valiantly over the next few months, we felt blessed by the time we had together.

Gordon had never been frightened of death. People hear that and assume it was simply a brave face he was putting on…but he was quite happy to die: to see what was going to happen when he left this planet. It just wasn’t in his nature to be scared of anything: he viewed everything as such a huge adventure. The only thing that ever upset him was the thought of the pain and distress his death would cause- particularly for his son, step-children, his family…and me. So he used his time to live fully: he talked to people about his dying; he thanked them for being a part of his life and he worked to raise awareness of the Spiritual Care Centre planned for Dzogchen Beara in Ireland.

Our first visit to DzB was in July, 2005: six months after the diagnosis. He wanted us to go on holiday to somewhere that was special to me. Without that typical gesture of consideration, he would have met a totally different death. He fell in love with the peace and beauty of DzB from the first moment he set foot on it. I explained to people that he had lung cancer and the Spiritual Care Team - especially Mary Moore - came to talk and offer support. It was here that he was introduced to the practice of Phowa and it was Mary who became our living link to this magical place.

The next visit came after his first bout of chemo. A chance discussion about the importance of the Spiritual Care Centre resulted in Gordon being filmed to raise awareness of its work…this, in turn, led to Mary suggesting Gordon as a subject for James Caddick’s "Three Minute Wonder:Preparing for the Worst" for Channel 4.

By our third visit in August 2006, Gordon knew that he wanted to die at DzB and did more filming for the Spring appeal of 2007 for The Spiritual Care Centre. February of that year was the last time that we visited DzB together…it was just after the start of his second round of chemo and it was our sixth week basking in its beauty; it was a time that was full of magic. We had so many visitors and so many wonderful experiences…it is a tribute to its people that we were always made to feel an important part of the community…that it was “home” By the end of February, we had made enquiries about Gordon being able to die at DzB with, or without, the SCC, He thought it was weirdly calming to know where he would die…but the cancer had other plans for us.

Gordon’s health began to deteriorate seriously during the chemo. He had managed five sessions and had decided to refuse the last infusion as he was feeling so poorly. The tumours in his lungs were responding well; the tumours in his bones were causing few problems as were those in his liver…the tumours which had metastasised to his brain were waiting for a second dose of radiotherapy which, we hoped, would give him another six months. But it was the thought of the brain tumours which concerned him the most…he worried that his personality would change; that he would no longer be himself. In the end, the brain tumours grew to a size where they caused stroke-like symptoms…Gordon lost the use of his legs over a matter of days. The oncologist explained that the radiotherapy would do little good now and that he might last two to three months. Our wonderful doctor visited every day and gauged Gordon’s strength…and weeks, not months, were promised and so we put our lives on hold to prepare.

We knew now that Gordon would be unable to travel to DzB and so, with Harriet Cornish uppermost in my mind, I tried to bring DzB to Gordon. The downstairs bedroom became the heart of the house…Gordon would leave it again only after he had died. Furniture was moved to maximise the space; prayer flags were hung outside the patio doors and plants were placed outside on the steps, tumbling into the room so that it almost seemed as if the room and the garden were one.

Two shrines were set up so that Gordon could see them whether he was sitting up or lying down…beautiful copper coloured drapes enfolded pictures of Rinpoche and Padmasambhava. Candles and singing bowls were everywhere…incense burned continuously and soft music sang in the background.

The room was often full of people…so many wanted to take the chance to see him one last time…and everyone remarked upon how beautiful and peaceful the atmosphere was. We had placed favourite images on the walls…a huge poster of the “Looks Like Me” statue of Guru Rinpoche and photos of DzB. I wanted Gordon to be able to love everything that he could see.

Over the next four weeks, Gordon deteriorated at a frightening speed. He was only able to move between our bed and the recliner chair…eventually, when his legs stopped working entirely, his meagre frame became a dead weight which was difficult to manoeuvre without causing pain…and he was confined to bed. It is heart-breaking to see someone who has always been so vibrant and alive, slowly disappear in front of you. He became vague and slept for longer and longer…regularly “waking up” to tell me that he loved me.

The last two days were lost to us as I could no longer give him his morphine tablets. As he had started to refuse food and drink, a morphine pump was started…its doses became overwhelming for him and he slept for most of the time.

The night before he died, I decided to turn the morphine pump to practically zero, I knew that his pain would increase … but so would his awareness and I knew he would want that. During the night, our wonderful friend Mary sat with him while I slept in the spare room and so was spared the sound of his breathing as it became more laboured and difficult. Although I had slept little over the last few months, it still felt strange to leave him; I knew I hadn’t deserted him because Mary was sitting with him…but, even so, it still felt wrong. I awoke early the next morning and went in to see him…his breathing had changed noticeably and had become a rasping gasp. Mary updated me on its deterioration before going for a shower.

The next twenty minutes were incredible; I honestly believe that Gordon had waited for me. I greeted him with my customary, “Hello, Gorgeous” and for the first time in a couple of days, he actually looked at me…the morphine which had disorientated him before had now lost its grip on him and, through the pain, he recognised me. Realising that this precious opportunity might be our last, I told him how much I loved him…how much everyone loved him…and how lucky we felt to have had him in our lives. I told him that it was ok for him to go…because at that moment, I truly felt that he was waiting for me to say that. I promised him that every breath I took, I would take for him; that I would live the rest of my life for him. He wasn’t afraid to die…he only feared hurting those who loved him.

At that moment, Mary came in. We looked at one another and knew that if we were to help him to die, it had to be now. It was rather surreal to be doing the Phowa practice for real. I put Rinpoche’s “Natural Great Peace” on the cd player and Gordon’s breathing immediately became calmer. I placed his mala beads in his hands and a great stillness descended on the room. We began to play the Vajra Guru Mantra- this had always been his favourite mantra - and Mary took him through the Phowa. All those wonderful times they’d done this amidst the peace and beauty of Dzogchen Beara now gelled into something so tranquil and sacred that it remains one of the most incredible moments of my life. A single tear ran down his cheek as Mary described the light flowing into him…seconds later, as he merged with that light, he gave three breaths and was gone…and everything was so very still.

We continued the Phowa and the Vajra Guru Mantra for the next half hour before I notified the doctor. He agreed to wait for a couple of hours before visiting. Just before he arrived, we touched Gordon’s heart centre…it was still warm, still seemingly radiating love into that still room. I know that his death was just what he wanted…at home, with people who loved him. I also know that his death would have been much more traumatic for both of us if Mary hadn’t been there to guide him home…and it did feel as if he’d gone home to the Light.

The following days were a blur…I decided to keep his body at home for two nights and sat vigil with him. During the day there were other people who came to sit…not just with Gordon but with the peace that was still glowing in the room. His son and one of his sisters had the chance to say goodbye as did Mary and my daughters: in fact, Mary continued to do the Phowa for him over the next 48 hours. I will always be indebted to the care and love shown to us by everyone we met both at DzB and in London…everyone but especially Mary who was a tower of strength.

It was thanks to Mary’s presence and unflinching support that I felt confident enough to prepare Gordon’s body for the funeral. I wanted the last hands that touched him to be hands that loved him: I mixed several oils together to use after I’d washed his body. The tenderness of having this time with him was wonderful. I can’t claim that I didn’t cry and I can’t claim that it didn’t break my heart but it felt very important and it helped his death to become more real. I feel that in the rush for modern undertakers to collect the body, society’s denial of death grows…particularly the realisation that this will happen to us all. By washing and dressing the body of the man I loved, I was able to touch death at first hand…and, as much as I wanted to deny it, I could see he was no longer there. The body that had contained the man that I had loved so very much was still there but his essence had gone. I found the experience strangely life-affirming and would recommend it to anyone who loses a partner.

My final act was to exchange our mala beads and dress him in the funkiest clothes I could find. The next time I saw him would be in his coffin; he was cold and didn’t look all that familiar anymore but he did look peaceful. I placed his favourite photo of me beside him; my daughter put in some poems; my six year old niece gave him her favourite badge; his son placed his favourite ring by his father’s hand…although it seems to be unusual to have an open coffin, it gave people the chance to put something in for his journey. I slipped some of Rinpoche’s amrit and some of the medicine from HH the Dalai Lama into Gordon’s mouth and scattered some inside the coffin: it all seemed so natural somehow.

The funeral lasted for an hour and a half…he arrived in a sidecar hearse and Triumph motorcycle and was carried in by his brothers and his son. Some of his swords and his favourite guitar were there as were his hats and favourite photos; we played music which had meant the most to him…a lot of it was his own. We lit candles and encouraged people to share their memories; we watched his “Three Minute Wonder” Finally, as the coffin disappeared, Mary led a last Phowa for him…

Some of Gordon’s ashes were scattered at Dzogchen Beara by myself with a few friends leading a short service. He now looks down over the Spiritual Care Centre surrounded by the mountains and the sea. When I die, my daughter will finish what we started that day by scattering the combined ashes of Gordon and myself in the place we loved the most in the world…Dzogchen Beara; I can’t think of a better place to rest!