When We Die: The Role of Transition Teams
STILLNESS IN THE STORM
Making one’s transition is so much bigger than any other ritual on this planet. Souls come in. Souls go out. Birth is a joyous event. Death is beyond our comprehension. We live in a material reality (3D) that limits our ability to experience the sacred and celebratory side of death (4-5D): the final passage from this reality to a nonphysical and eternal one.
By Barbara Harris Whitfield and Charles Whitfield / October 7, 2021
This nonphysical reality is Spiritual, ineffable, and a part of the Divine Mystery. It is the reality of God’s world, not our earthly world, and sometimes we can only sense it through our hearts. As the Little Prince said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Saint-Exupéry, 1943)
The enormity and elusiveness of this nonmaterial reality can perhaps only be understood in metaphor. As a respiratory therapist, I used large tanks of oxygen. Each tank contained enough compressed oxygen to make the pressure on the inner walls of the tank 2,200 pounds per square inch. That is an extraordinary amount of pressure. Yet we hooked the tank up to a patient who was receiving the oxygen in a gentle slow stream. The oxygen at the patient’s nostrils felt like a soft gentle breeze because of a little device we used called a “reducing valve.” Twenty-two hundred pounds per square inch went into the reducing valve, which brought the pressure down to a gentle stream going through the tubing that went to the patient.
As we take in reality, our brains work the same way as the reducing valve. Reality is huge. Its pressure is too big and too much for us to handle. Our brain, our reducing valve, allows reality to flow in a gentle stream so we can handle it without exploding ourselves.
Helping someone die is as close as I can get, as close as any of us can get, to the huge reality that is beyond our individual ability to perceive. Ultimately, all this is a mystery, but we can get closer to the mystery by allowing ourselves to experience death with openness, loss of ego, and willingness to be aware of and open to our subtle experiences.
A Beginning Ritual for Ourselves
Each time I have been with a person making his or her transition, I go through my own brief ritual as I travel to be with this person for the first time. I do not plan my ritual. It starts itself with a voice in my head that likes to worry. I hear, “I’m not sure about this one.” Or, “How is this going to go?” Or, “I don’t know if I’m qualified to do this…this time.”
I let myself feel all my insecure feelings and then, instead of worrying, I turn them over. I ask the Universe to help me get my ego out of the way so It may come through. I picture myself as a conduit. I clear by letting everything else in my life move to a back burner where I know it will be safe until I retrieve it. Then I feel prepared to move into someone’s final passage in this lifetime.
As I pray, I cross over into another’s drama that is filled with possibilities. This final passage can be a healing experience for anyone involved. It can be filled with Spirit and what we call unconditional presence.1 Over and over again my experiences have shown me that, much of the time, these transition scenes can turn into “Spiritual experiences” that are profound and worthy of any and all human feelings bathed in these sacred moments.
As I walk into the home and am greeted by grieving relatives and friends, I make eye contact with each person who is before me, and I stay present with those who avoid eye contact. As I meet the transitioning person, I focus on my heart and a sense of love. It is as if I am meeting an old friend again. Deep intimacy will usually develop within a very short time because that is our role. This is the reason we, the transition team members, have been asked to come. Our position as part of the team, or as its leader, is to take charge in an unusual way. All the relatives and close significant others in attendance can relax because our presence removes the pressure from them. The transitioning person can relax because there is no more fear of family members and loved ones becoming afraid and calling for an ambulance to take them to a hospital or hospice. They want to die in their own bed. We help them to relax and know that this is now absolutely possible.
And at the same time, we must also let go of ultimate authority over this unpredictable scene and make way for Spirit to orchestrate the transition. We are there to troubleshoot between family members and friends and to gently help with communications. The most important communication will be what the transitioning person wants. We are there to be present, to facilitate and to allow.
The Passing of Time — in No Time
Dying takes its own time. It may become agonizing for everyone involved when it drags on and on. The boring times are rarely spoken about. What started on Friday evening may not conclude until Sunday afternoon or even days beyond. Some relatives may be unwilling to leave or unwilling to take shifts, so
I sat for three days with Sherry, a 40-something woman transitioning from cancer. It appeared to her that her family was a threat because they wanted her to be in a hospital when she died. My presence not only relieved the pressure from them to move her, it also assured her that she could stay home. Sherry also had unresolved anger over her dead mother’s abuse of her as a child. Because of this, she did not want her father, aunts, uncles and cousins to be with her during her transition. As I sat with Sherry, her husband and best friend came in and out, bringing things that were needed, and occasionally to visit. Twice a day the three of us laid our hands on Sherry, said a prayer and meditated with her. This hands-on-healing procedure helped her pain medication to work, gave her a sense of peace and love and gave her husband and friend a chance to share their love with her. No one else was allowed into her room. There were twelve, sometimes fifteen people in the living area of the house who were grieving for Sherry and unable to see her.
The second day of sitting with her, I flipped TV channels at Sherry’s request until she said, “Stop!” We were suddenly watching Sally Field screaming over her daughter’s grave in Steel Magnolias. This scene was so intense, I stayed on my feet, milling around the TV. I found a tape labeled “family” and asked Sherry if we could watch it. What unfolded were Sherry’s childhood birthday parties and family vacations. There were her father, aunts, uncles and cousins, showing little Sherry love in the form of hugs and kisses, smiles and admiration. By early that evening, Sherry had invited the entire waiting family into her bedroom.
By late evening, everyone was willing to go home or to other parts of the house to get some sleep. The next afternoon, surrounded by everyone who loved her, Sherry made her transition. It was a process that took about three hours from “coma” to her last breath. During that final day there were tears and deep sadness. But the grieving was also interspersed with stories of wonderful memories. Everyone told stories. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, Sherry smiled and looked around at the faces circling her and her room and then she was silent until her last words about 2 hours before her last breath was, “I bet you all think I died. Well, that was just a dress rehearsal!” Dying people still have their sense of humor and outbursts of humor help to relieve the tension while being in the passage of “no time.”
My Father’s Transition
When my adult kids came into my father’s hospital room, he opened his eyes and his face lit up. He adored my kids. “You know what I would love right now?” he said. “A corned beef sandwich.” The kids ran to the nearest deli and soon there we were, seven corned beef sandwiches: four of us squeezed around him on his bed and two more standing over him. We reminisced about old times. He gave each one of us a memory that he had obviously held in his heart. Each of us told him how much we loved him and he beamed. And occasionally, my dad, who had never ever talked about the “afterlife” before, spoke to his mother who had died when he was 17. He told us his “Mumma” was there to help him leave. We were held so tightly in that moment that every breath was profound. We knew there was a Presence with us that was part of my father’s transition.
When we let go of our ego, love can flow freely. Its bonding effect takes on a kind of atmospheric recognition, akin to humidity but more serene. Then an unconditional presence expands the consciousness of each individual that “brails” what is going on. (Sometimes we can’t recognize something in the usual cognitive way so by “brailing” I mean that we feel or sense what is going on around us).
Every moment is spent in the present, and for those not familiar with this state of unconditional presence, other terms that mean about the same thing are “The Holy Instant” (A Course In Miracles), Be Here Now (Ram Dass), and Being in the Tao (Eastern mysticism). This concept gives us a whole new way of experiencing our reality. And, it seems that attending the final passage of a loved one, friend or client shows us this heightened sense of reality.
Transpersonal therapist and author John Welwood called this state of consciousness “unconditional presence.” He says that when the heartbreaks out of its shell, we feel raw and vulnerable. This is the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves because we slow down and authentically see and feel our distress having an impact on us. Then our pain can awaken our desire and will to live in a new way. When we open ourselves to this awareness, it becomes unconditional presence: just being with what is happening in our inner life right now, without any agenda.
That last day with my father, my heart was breaking. At the same time, I was catapulted into this heightened state of awareness. Time had stopped. Every step my feet took registered profoundly. The scenes I viewed in the hospital appeared like virtual reality. Eye contact with another took me directly into that person’s being. Each person I connected with knew easily what I was conveying. My connection with my father was total, or more than I had ever realized was possible.
When my father was conscious and with me, he, too, was in this state. Knowing about unconditional presence made it easier for us to “move in” to the situation and take full advantage of it, so that our final moments together, although filled with sadness, could be the best possible.
A positive “side effect” of unconditional presence is the realization of the difference between suffering and being in the pain of sadness and grieving. When we suffer, we are resisting what is, and this takes us so deeply into ourselves that we aren’t present in the moment. This in turn may cheat us of those possible last precious moments with the transitioning person. Unconditional presence keeps us riveted in the now where there is no resistance. It shows us the difference between suffering and being present with our painful feelings.
Science tells us in the First Law of Thermodynamics that energy doesn’t dissipate; it transforms.
When a person gets ready for their transition, as their physical body becomes weaker, their bio-energy weakens. At the same time, their Spiritual energy strengthens. For days or weeks before they leave, they are transforming, taking the energy from their physical body and moving it to their Spiritual energy/body. The increasing strength of their Spiritual energy entrains us — the caregivers that are the closest, and sometimes even the next tier out of close people — into the same space. We move into the Spiritual vibration of the dying person.
This process is called “entrainment.” Perhaps entrainment is best explained by the example of tuning forks or clocks. When one tuning fork is struck and starts vibrating, other tuning forks nearby will also begin to vibrate. If you have several clocks with pendulums in a room and you start all the pendulums swinging at different times, when you later return to the room, all the pendulums will be swinging in sync.
When we sit in an audience and listen to a compelling speaker, we become entrained. The speaker holds us with their content and delivery. The same thing happens at a musical concert. Then at the end, when we applaud, we break the entrainment and leave as our single self again.
We, the transition team, family members and caregivers may find ourselves entrained during the dying process to the extent that we go through the beginning of the journey with the dying person. Sherry’s husband, her best friend and I experienced the Spiritual peace that Sherry was feeling. As her energy became less physical and more Spiritual, the power of her Spirit entrained us. When Sherry’s husband and I sat up all night watching her breathe, we soon were breathing in the same pattern she was. We were experiencing entrainment. We were fortunate to experience this state for the entire weekend. Her husband said he continued to experience it for several days after.
Others attending a death often become aware of entrainment, and sometimes even of a Spiritual Presence, moving into the experience of helping someone to let go and transition. We are able to talk about it, to share our feelings and to get a sense of relief for the time being. We know painful grieving may happen afterwards, but for now, there is a strong sense of timelessness and eternity that insulates us from worrying about later grieving. I reassure those that are experiencing this for the first time that this is all right, and I tell them I have written a book that explains this—Final Passage.
Humility at Work
My dying patients have taught me much about living and dying. I have learned so much about the wonderful possibilities we share. And it seems that the best time to share and blossom in our human/divine nature is during the transition of a Soul back to Spirit.
There are humbling moments during this process that help us to absolutely know that our lives and our transitions are orchestrated by something Higher. These moments are termed “synchronicities.” Synchronicities are linking coincidences that happen often enough to make us realize that our lives are woven from an elevated awareness. Synchronicities usually punctuate Spirit’s presence and, even in the saddest moments, may transform grief to a fleeting sense of joy. Ordinary things take on special meanings i.e.: a piece of wax falling from a candle is transformed into the shape of an angel, songs on the radio are giving messages about the very thing we were just thinking or speaking of, phone calls start coming from people we were just talking about.
Death, the Final Celebration In This Lifetime
Souls come in and Souls go out. Birth is a time of celebration. Final Passages can be too. Many Souls I have worked with know/believe that they will soon recover — on the other side of the veil. They may be weary of the dying process and prefer to leave to start their recovery. They may be “hanging on” only because their close others are not ready to let them go. This is where we can do our part in helping them in their transition. We can work with the others to help them realize that the most loving thing we can do is to let go and give our loved ones permission to leave. It has been suggested that each Soul waits for permission from another to transition. I have seen it work that way.
A gentle way to do this is to give the transitioning person a foot massage. They need to be touched. Hand massages work too but I always go for the feet. I can stand at the foot of the bed, rubbing their feet, and even if their eyes are closed, many times they open and gaze into mine. If I am the person that is going to give them permission to leave, I will gently say, “It’s all right. If you need to go now, you go.” Of course, if this is a loved one, I will tell them I love them too, but if they’re ready it’s all right to go now. I kept reassuring my father that we would take care of our mother, and he looked relieved. I could feel his relief.
After they transition, the sense of a profound Spiritual experience may continue for a while, for at least as long as the others stay together. That is why it is so hard to leave and go back to our own lives. The “Wake,” or the Jewish tradition of “Sitting Shiva,” helps in this regard. We spend more time grieving and finding comfort with others. Eventually, though, we must all go back to our individual lives, and then the sense of being in a Spiritual experience disappears. Reading about Spiritual experiences may help.
Hands-on Healing Meditation
This type of hands-on energy work is easy to use with people making their transition. The one receiving the energy lies down and is usually covered with a light blanket. Other members of the family, friends or health care team (whom the receiver feels are “safe”) gather around and sit with their hands gently and lightly touching the receiver. Before we begin, I always say a prayer to connect and unite us all in what we are asking to do. I say something like, “Dear God (or Dear Holy Mother, or whatever my patient feels most comfortable with), please may we be instruments of your healing energy and your Oneness. Please help us to get our egos out of the way so You may come through.”
This works with one person as an instrument, or as many as six. The main principle is that the people that are doing the hands-on-healing feel safe to the patient receiving the energy. I have worked with children as young as three in a healing circle, and adults as old as 90 who may be dying themselves. In one such case, when we had finished the first healing, we covered that patient, and then a 90-year-old laid down on the floor a few feet away, and we repeated the healing on her. Then something extraordinary happened. One of the people helping with these two hands-on healings was an eight-year-old girl who was also in the family. She was suffering from repeated stomach aches and asked if she could be helped. We then did a healing on her. Her mother called me a few weeks later to tell me that she was going through a painful divorce and since it had started, her little girl had stomach pain to the point where they had taken her to a medical specialist for tests. The tests were normal. And, since we did the healings that day her daughter has been pain-free. This mother was in school to become an acupuncturist and after experiencing that day with the healings she now believed more than ever in energy work.
It doesn’t matter if the people giving the healing believe in all this. All that matters is that they have the intention of wanting to help. Many times the person receiving healing tells me afterward that their pain medication is now working or they no longer feel they need it. Their coloring improves, they feel more relaxed and they feel loved.
Hands-on-healing can be done twice a day, or more, if the patient requests it. The givers have often told me that they calmed down from the experience. It not only helped their bodies to relax, it also helped their hearts to know that they were giving “something” to the person in need. This is especially important for loved ones who may have been afraid to touch the patient for fear of hurting them. This gives them a safe way to express themselves that bypasses words.
Whether the patient is going to get better or is going to die doesn’t matter in these hands-on circles. We are not looking for a “cure.” We are looking for a sharing that brings comfort to the receiver and usually spills over into the givers.
We do this together for about 20 minutes. It feels like a meditation. We clear our minds and sit in a peaceful way, placing our hands gently on the patient and sharing a current of Energy that envelops all of us. We naturally come out of it within 20 minutes or so, feeling more relaxed and at the same time energized, because the energy we shared didn’t come from us but came through us.
We close this healing circle with a prayer of gratitude: “Dear God, Dear Spirit, thank you for allowing us to be instruments of your healing Energy. Thank you for allowing us to feel your Oneness. Amen”
Support Groups for Grieving
After an all-night vigil, I sometimes feel I have “shrunk” inside to “make room” for the dying person. It’s a feeling of almost losing one’s self. I am able to leave and go home, take a soothing bath and relax in my own bed.
Many times, the primary caregiver is sharing their bed with the person we have been helping to transition. The primary caregiver has no place to go to get themselves back. The close or primary caregiver, who is often the significant other, and who is living, painfully, through this process of escalating illness and dying, is living this loss 24 hours a day. Counseling primary caregivers during their loved one’s transition and after it is over contains this common thread of loss of self as well as loss of the other.
Often primary caregivers are afraid to complain for fear of feeling selfish or guilty for a number of reasons that only continue to damage them inside. Of course, they want to be everything they can be to their dying loved ones. But we are all still human, and we all still have needs. We can gently help them to remember that they, too, are losing a partner, or parent, or friend, so part of them is dying also. One of the best things we can do to assist them is to help make a plan to leave for a while when they can, even if it is only to take a walk or to sit in a park.
I have often been a speaker for a group called “Compassionate Friends.” This group is for parents who have lost children. Some members have lost a child only a month earlier; others may have been attending this group for 20 years. You might want to find out if a similar group is available in your area so that you can refer your friend or client’s families. Self-care is important. Let the caregivers know this. There are local support groups in churches for caregivers in every large city and even in small towns. Local cancer societies are a good source for finding them. If caregivers cannot leave home, help them to find an online support group.