The face of death

I first met Arpita three months ago. She is 50 years old, a surgeon by profession. She lost her younger sister to death in January, just a few days before we met.

Outwardly, Arpita is strong, organized and in charge of life, and takes care of what her loved ones need. She takes care of the needs of her elderly parents and relatives, and her children.

Inwardly, she is crumbling. As I meet her once a week, for about 75 minutes, she remembers her sister and cries. She feels helpless, sad, sorrowful. There is nothing she can do. There is nothing she can do in the face of life, which has taken away her younger sister from her.

As Shweta, the sister, lay in the hospital for the last fortnight of January, Arpita spent most of her time in hospital with Shweta. After about 12 days in hospital, through several rounds of complicated medical procedures, in the middle of the night, Shweta called out to Arpita who was sleeping near her bed. When Arpita woke up, Shweta softly said that her time to go had come, and she was relieved that this was so. She had tears in her eyes, but also a calm on her face that had not been there through her excruciating days in the hospital. Shweta said she was tired of her chronic illness, of having to come to hospital every few days for so many years, of all the procedures she had to go through, of all her symptoms. She wanted release, and she felt that that release had come. She was going to pass on from this world soon.

Arpita had tears rolling down her face as she heard Shweta say this. Even though she wanted to tell Shweta not to speak like this, she knew that Shweta’s words had a ring of truth in them. Shweta had sensed death approaching.

The next day, Shweta’s body began to break down rapidly. Her organs began to fail one after the other. She could not breathe by herself and was put on a ventilator. She was kept alive for two more days, barely conscious of her surroundings, before she finally left the body.

Ten days later, Arpita came to me, looking for psychotherapy. Over the last three months, I have been witness to an exceptional process. With Shweta, a part of Arpita has died. The two sisters were like a unit. Always on the phone with each other, always in touch. Arpita would talk to Shweta several times a day, even though they lived in different cities. They would know what each other is doing. They would consult each other on small things. They would buy things for each other to give when they met next, which would always be very soon.

This part of Arpita, which was so linked to Shweta, has also gone away with Shweta, disappeared from this world, passed away, as if to some other world. What it has left behind is a deep vulnerability. A feeling of being helpless, wounded, alone and anxious, and deeply sad. All her life, Arpita has been the one who takes responsibility for others, who takes charge, who is the strong one in the family. Today, she finds herself wounded and helpless.

Together, we pay attention to this part of her. We offer it care, and the nourishing light of awareness. We watch as the impulse to be strong, hard working comes up again, attempts to push down this helplessness, to go back to work, to go back to the responsibilities of ‘normal’ life. We watch as that impulse fails after a while, the sorrow, the loneliness emerging strong and drowning it in themselves. Slowly, we learn. We learn to pay more attention to the wound. To be intensely alive to all the pain of life.

Slowly, we learn that the self is re-orienting itself. It is attending more deeply to the quality of every relationship it has. From working long hours it is moving to cultivating relationships of care, mutuality and togetherness. From taking on a list of responsibilities, it is moving to spending time in solitude, to shedding precious tears, to writing from those tears – thoughts of love, thoughts of those that have passed away, beautiful thoughts about life, relationship, sisterhood.

Slowly, I watch as a new self in Arpita is born, even as the old self dies, in pain. The responsible, workaholic, in-charge self dies and the vulnerable, quiet, soft self is born.

As in the burning of flame, there is the dark, uncomfortable smoke of pain. There is the burning away of what once was the fixed self. There is the birth of new light and warmth.

As if, watching this flame of transformation, as a silent face in the darkness that the flame illuminates, is the face of death. Like Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, we find death present when we talk. We find death to be the invisible, yet palpable witness to our dialogue on the refashioning of the self – the painful gift that Shweta, in her passing away, has left for Arpita.

It is not easy. It is by no means devoid of pain. It is by no means a process that one would readily want to go through. It is truly a trial by fire, and I do not know how far Arpita would like to go into it, before she raises her arm and says, ‘stop’.

I do know that in the detailed particularities of Arpita and her loss of her sister, of her particular personality and life situation, of her particular culture, there is something which is not particular, but eternal. It is the intimate encounter with death.

That night when Shweta woke up Arpita and said she was going to die – that night is burnt into Arpita’s consciousness forever. Every day, she finds herself in that encounter with death, with the loss of that which was once one’s own.

Arpita is living an eternal human question – how does one respond to death? There are no fixed answers. In the flame of living and dying, there is freedom, at times as a living truth, at other times as possibility that one is too scared to step into.

And I, like a hospice worker, am simply present with the one undergoing this experience, seeing them, co-experiencing with them while their encounter with death does the work of bringing change and grace. I am deeply privileged to be Arpita’s witness, companion, fellow traveller in this journey.

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