Archive for the ‘death and dying’ Category

Good bye to our mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, Maria Schreiner-Vermeer Diets

July 22, 2016

July 21, 2016

Maria Schreiner-Vermeer Diets, born February 8, 1921
Last night, while we were gathered around my dead mother’s bed waiting for the morticians to arrive, my eight-year old niece, Grace, was insistent that she wanted us to write our names on a piece of paper that she passed around. As her great grandfather, grandfather, mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins signed their name, we all jokingly tried to guess what this was about. She had a mysterious smile on her face but refused to give a hint. Her grandfather speculated that maybe Grace wanted our names for her special phonebook.
After she looked the list over, and was satisfied that everyone in the room had signed, she carefully folded the piece of paper several times. Then she walked over to her great grandmother’s body, still resting on the bed twelve hours after her death, with her husband sitting comfortably near the corpse of his wife like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Grace slowly pulled back the covers and searched for the small pocket she must have noticed in my mother’s sundress. She smiled, and quietly tucked the paper with our names into this pocket.
I cry as I write this. This was Grace’s first experience seeing a corpse, and later her mother and the other granddaughters told me they’d never seen a corpse before either.
Knowing that the morticians were scheduled to come up 9 p.m., I first stopped by briefly before walking Honey in the river bottom. I was amazed how at peace my mother looked. At that point, or maybe it was the light in the room, her skin did not seem to have the deathly grey white pallor that I noticed just before the morticians came. People were laughing and socializing around her bed. The room was filled with the sweet smell of flowers that visitors had brought during the day.
It did me good to see my mom looking so peaceful—much more so then when I’d left earlier after we first arranged her corpse on the bed—at that point we were trying to figure out a way to make her mouth stay closed. (We never did succeed in putting her dentures back in —the dentures went into her sundress pocket along with Grace’s list of names.)
For this special occasion, my father finally allowed my Aussie, Honey, to rest respectfully in the doorway of the bedroom, after his usual, “What’s that dirty dog doing here?” Honey quietly eyed everyone in the room as my father said a last long prayer for my mother. My faithful dog, with her ancient animal instinct intact, could sense this was a momentous moment.
Then we heard the doorbell ring. The two morticians in their black Sunday suits, one older and quite rotund, one younger and slimmer, both very shiny like they’d just had a shower, entered solemly and respectfully—just as described in that mortician’s memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
As they assessed the situation, we wanted assurance that my mother would not be immediately cremated. Had the weather been colder, we would have kept her overnight. “No,” they assured us, “First we have to get a permit . . . probably nothing will be done with her body till Friday . . . ”
I’d been worried that they might put my mother’s corpse in some kind of a body bag but, after they rolled the gurney down the hallway, they scooped her up, bedding and all, her pillow still under her head . . . wrapped in her own sheets, only her head, the necklace around her neck, poking out, looking somewhat like a very dignified mummy . . .We made sure my dad was in the other part of the house for this part of the final exit.
Outside the full moon was rising high in the sky, casting her bright light on the landscape below. All was deathly quiet . . . all was well.
* * *



A photo of my parents taken a few years ago on their back porch in Ojai, California







This photo was taken at a wedding when we lived in Den Haag, Holland, before my youngest sister, Paula Francisca Klein Kee, (seven years younger) was born, probably in 1954. We emigrated to Ojai, California, in 1957.


My sweet mama has died

July 20, 2016

July 20, 2016

My sweet mama died around 9 a.m this morning. With the guidance of the hospice nurse, Carol, we undressed, cleaned, and rubbed lotion all over her thin, limp, lifeless body. We picked out one of her favorite summer dresses, bright yellow with flowers, put fresh clean flowery sheets on her bed, even a fresh Depends on her bottom, combed her hair, and arranged her as pleasant and lifelike in her bed as possible. We cried and laughed the whole time—the whole atmosphere in her bedroom begs for comic (cosmic) relief.

Her death, like life, was far from ideal but the hospice nurse assured us it was a very good death—a role model death for the rest of us. Another day I might dive into the differences of opinion between my youngest sister and I regarding the easing of her last hours on earth, but for now I let those differences be. I’m grateful to both of my sisters for all their help, for many years now, assuring that our parents die at home, in their own bed, with their Dutch-Indonesian eating habits and all their lifelong idiosyncrasies respected.

I’m still a bit shell shocked from it all . . . so intense to step back into the stream of life without a part of me back in the bed with my mother. She was so brave—showing me what to do and also what I don’t want to do, when my own time of departure is at hand.

We’ll keep my mom in her bed till 9 p.m. tonight. Then come the funeral folks to take her to be cremated . . . I’ll come back tonight to witness this last step . . . Hospice recommended we don’t wait till tomorrow, due to the warm temperature.

When I left the house, my father was eating pancakes in the kitchen, and three of my mom’s granddaughters were sitting by her bed, seeing death, possibly seeing a corpse for the first time. Tonight, I’ll massage my dad’s feet as usual, and get a sense of his state of mind now that his wife of 68 years  has gone to her heavenly home, as he describes it . . .

I feel so relieved that my mother’s days of  lingering in bed, growing weaker, the not knowing how she was feeling as she waved her skeletal arms in the air, are over . . .  I’m glad that her end-of-life wondering and confusion over dropping the body has come to an end.

Photo: My mother in Den Haage, Holland, when she was still known by her maiden name, Maria Schreiner Vermeer.


Marriage to my father, Rene Ferry Diets, August 20, 1948


Nine months later, with me, Susanna Francina Diets, born May 24, 1949





How Close to Death is My Mother?

July 19, 2016


July 18, 2016
I can tell that I’m totally losing it. I was on the phone with a friend, describing how close to death my mother is, and I heard myself say, “It’s different for my sister. I think she’s counting on seeing my mother in the afterlife, so it’s not such a big deal to her.”
I honestly don’t know what to believe. I only know that I want to go sleep in my mother’s bed so that I can hang on to her nightgown and go with her if she flies away.
10857245_10153067402699703_7603214433623327342_oMy dad says he’s going to hang on till my mom goes. “She’s already gone,” he says, “but I’ll wait till she dies. Then I’ll follow her.”
This afternoon I noticed another change in my mother. She wants me to put my face up close so she can feel my hair and skin with her bony hands. When she runs her fingers through my hair, I can feel the death grip in her hands.
She’s also moving her arms and hands slowly back and forth through the air, stretching her hands wide open and then closing her fingers, as if feeling the ability to move them for the last time.
My mom was thrilled when her red-headed granddaughter, Kelsey, came to visit. She spent many minutes playing with Kelsey’s long red hair. Maybe this wanting to touch our hair and faces is her way of saying goodbye.
My dad is so enthusiastic about my foot massages. He thinks I should massage elderly people’s feet for a living. “You should get paid a lot to do this, Suzan. Most people neglect their feet.” We discuss how cruel it is that so many people never get a foot massage—or any kind of massage. Since the end is now so near, on this day I give him two deep foot massages.
During the first massage, early in the afternoon, I notice that his feet and lower legs are ice-cold, in spite of wearing thick socks under the covers. By the time I finish, his feet radiate heat!
The second time, in the late evening, I notice that his feet are still warm. Good sign!
I can tell that my foot massages are getting better and better. My dad has fabulous, strong, sturdy Indonesian feet. We agree that his feet are the best part of his body. As I massage the ball of the foot, the arches, the heels, in between the toes, he reminisces how many miles his feet have travelled. And he remembers how the Japanese tried to break him in prison camp by making him carry heavy oxygen tanks. “They tried to break my back, Suzan, but they didn’t break me. I grew stronger . . . ”
Just when I feel too tired to do anymore, he sits upright in his adjustable hospital bed and asks for a back rub. How can I possibly refuse?
My sister and her husband, who moved in with my parents a few months ago, are still out on their nightly run. So I take a short nap in my mother’s bed. Then, when I see her moving her hands in the air again, I sit up and meet her hands with mine—like we’re playing a game. I tell her, “Just think mom, right now millions of people are dying and millions are being born . . . ” I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say at a moment like this—but this is all beyond words anyway.

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Photo: My daughter, granddaughter, and mother, 2015.

Once an elderly person stays in bed to die, how long does it take?

July 19, 2016


July 17, 2016
This morning I Googled, “once an elderly person stays in bed to die, how long does it take?” The article below describes what I’m seeing my mother going through and gives a response to many of my concerns, such as dehydration.
Most days my 95-year-old mother is peaceful, looking more and more ethereal and angelic with her white hair spread out on her pillow like a halo. But early this morning my youngest sister reported again that last night my mother was restless, shouting, removing the covers, though we do not feel that she is in pain. My sister tried giving her a small amount of medication (as recommended by Hospice) to calm her —but she can hardly swallow water . . . This death feels like a long gestation . . . We don’t want to rush death but neither do we want to prolong any suffering.
From my experience some years ago helping an elder friend who consciously refused both food and water and who said she was “comfortable” and was totally lucid without any sustenance except one cup of camomile tea around the midway point, I have some idea how long my mother’s dying process might take.
I can feel my mother’s pulse, the blood flowing . . . the body has a will, a life of its own. My mother often stares down at her skeletal arms and hands, as if wondering, “How did this happen?” As if her body is totally foreign to her now.
My long ago elder friend who refused food and water was surprised to find herself still alive as she approached the two-week point. Hours before her death, I helped her shower. “The water feels so good,” she said, but I never saw her drink it. The day she died I read her a favorite story . . . She was in good spirits and tranquil when her body finally gave up the ghost in the early morning hours of the seventeenth day . . .

The story of my friend’s conscious death: Winter Solstice Liberation

Recommended Reading:
Caring for the Dying: End-of-Life Care
Comfort Care Choices – Information on Palliative Care

“Imagine what this world would be like if there was no death.”

July 14, 2016

July 11, 2016

“Soon it will be your turn,” says my old dad. “Imagine what this world would be like if there was no death.”
I don’t know why merciful death does not come for my parents. They are truly scary looking now. My dad looks at me from behind his brown skinned skull—his eyes so deep in their sockets, like he’s already beyond the grave. It pains me to see him like this. He’s strong enough to get in and out of his bed and walk down the short hallway to my mother’s bed—always dragging the oxygen tubes along with him.
Tonight my mother has a death grip on both of my hands, every once in a while shouting as if in labor, “Help me . . . help me.”
“We are here, mom,” I try to assure her. I have plenty of time to examine her. Her arms are so thin–like you could snap the bones in half. Tonight I really see just how fragile her bones have gotten.
My old parents—two skeletons with skin hanging off their bones. Yet their life force continues.
I pray my mom is passing in the night, as I write this. My dad is relaxed, waiting for death. He’s gotten used to it. These past weeks, he’s been virtually pain free, still taking himself to the bathroom, totally coherent, though he repeats himself more and more.
But my mom was tense and stiff tonight—like she didn’t know what was happening, like she was scared. She stares out from her bed to the objects in her room. I tell her where she is, that we are with her, in my feeble efforts to assure her that she is safe.
She’s aware that she’s dying, yet she’s not aware. When I tell her that she’s 95 years old now and that she’ll live on in her grandchildren and great grandchildren, she glances down at me—almost with a look of anger and disbelief. It feels lame to tell her that she’s going to the spirit world now, somewhere beautiful.
None of it makes sense, yet we spend our whole life denying and grappling with it.
My dad tells me that my mom will be saved by proxy—by virtue of being married to him. When he seats himself on the bed beside my mother’s head and swings his bony stick legs on top of the cover, my mother screams. I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it seems like she’s so sensitive that if we brush against her it’s like an electric shock—our proximity gives her a jolt.
Oh, my poor, sweet mother. I tell her once more how much we love her. Her bony grip is so strong—she’s hanging on. Her voice is still strong. Her eyesight and hearing are perfect but she’s had only a few sips of liquid for almost two weeks. She doesn’t want to drink tonight and my dad orders me not to try to give her water. “She might choke Suzan. Don’t do anything . . . ”
My mom is confused. “What’s happening?” she asks, again. She lifts up the covers and stares down at her body, now living on itself. Every once in awhile she winces. I don’t know how much she comprehends the magnitude, the finality of what’s really going on— this unfathomable final wrestling of her spirit out of her flesh.
I look around at all the pictures of her life, on the wall near the bed and on the dresser. My parents’ wedding pictures—she looks so beautiful in a long lace dress, one that I still remember hanging in the closet as I was growing up, her wavy black hair combed neatly back into a flowery headband. She’s holding a bouquet, my dad standing so proud next to her, in his perfectly pressed new suit, so handsome, recovered from his years in the prison camp, both of them looking into the future, their roles defined.
“We are one flesh,” my father tells my mother. “We are united for eternity. . . If you go first, I will soon follow. A few days later or in a few weeks . . . in the span of eternity, it doesn’t matter. I will follow you and we will be together in our heavenly home.”
My dad can relax in the assurance that his heavenly father is waiting for him. That He has prepared a place for him. He tells me again that he’s ready to go—that he’s not afraid of death. That sometimes in the night, when he cannot sleep, he prays for his heavenly father to take him but that He tells him, “Not yet, son. Not yet . . . ”
I came home tonight beyond tired, falling asleep with all the lights on. I have all these books on death—at least thirty—inherited over the years from when I did elder care. I don’t know how I did that—sometimes twelve-hours overnight and even three-day shifts. But now sitting in a hot room in the flow of death exhausts me . . .


What a strange, transient, ever-changing dream this life is

July 10, 2016

Note: Click here for current writing yoga memoir, Virtually Attached: Full Moon Musings on Romantic Relationships, Part One to Six. (Part Seven coming July 10, 2016)

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July 8, 2016
What a strange, transient, ever-changing dream this life is. Tonight, when I went to check on my elderly parents, I found my dad sitting on my mother’s bed for the first time in many months. Until recently, they shared the same bed for 68 years. They were holding hands, my mom under the covers, in her white undershirt, my dad in his old flannel pajamas, with the tubes to the oxygen tank in his nose . . . two frail, skeletal elders, on the brink of death.
At first I hesitated to disturb their communion but they were happy to see me. My mom, who fades in and out of the present, said in a cheerful voice, “Wat gezellig. allemaal bei alkaar, ” (What a pleasure, all of us together.) She was so happy that her husband had come to see her, she kept kissing his hand.
As soon as I sat on the bed beside my dad, he indicated he wanted me to massage his back while he sat upright. I could feel every rib, every bone in his back. These past few months I’ve written many times that I don’t think he can get any thinner, yet now even his bones feel bonier. The same with my mother, who now hasn’t eaten in over a week.
The other day she looked me over and said, “Jei bent zo lekker vet, maar Paula is zo aakelek dun.” (You are so nice and fat but Paula is so painfully thin.)
My dad sat still, holding my mother’s hand, while my strong hands kneaded his shoulders. My mother, still speaking Dutch, said she wanted to go for a walk on the beach tomorrow, a long walk along the ocean, a place she called “de hoek van Holland.” She described children playing —it saddens my dad that her mind is gone, that she goes on and on saying things that make little sense to him. Every once in a while her far away mind comes back to the present, to tell me for the thousandth time how messy my hair is, how I must comb it to the side, and how important it is to look “netjles” (neat).
These last several months, not knowing whether one or both of my parents will slip away before my next visit, I’ve fallen into a routine. First, I fortify myself by wandering the river bottom with my dogs and granddaughter, Maggie, whose chubby seventeen-month-old legs are now sturdy enough to run up and down small hills.
When she falls or one of the exuberant dogs flying past her cause her to lose her footing, she may cry for a moment, but then she picks herself up, brushes the dirt off her legs, and goes back to the pure joyousness of being in a brand new young body.
Maggie and I are so perfectly matched—I pretend I’m the shaman- prankster grandmother—she’s my little apprentice. She calls me “mam” —same as my daughter does. We wander the dirt road or rocky riverbed with no agenda. If Maggie plops herself on the dusty ground to play with sticks and pebbles, I sit or squat nearby, drinking in this fleeting moment. We sing silly songs, we dance, whoop, and mimic animals (her favorite is when I pant like a dog, my tongue hanging out . . . ) After we whoop it up, we sink into silence, into bliss together. We listen for the subtle sounds of nature. Then, after I return Maggie to her mother’s breast (the matrix), I’m fortified to massage my dad and amuse my mother . . .


Winter Solstice Liberation: Mahasamadhi, the Last Asana

January 18, 2015


December, 1987
In the end—and it will end—your life will seem to have sped by like a fleeting dream.
—Doris “Granny D” Haddock
(Author’s note: Doris Haddock was a political activist, who, between the ages of 88 and 90, starting on January 1, 1999, and culminating on February 29, 2000, walked over 3,200 miles  across the  United States to advocate for campaign finance reform.)
It took seventeen days without food, and almost no water, for my friend Ruth to leave her body. She died on the morning of the Winter Solstice. That was the choice she made, rather than risk having another stroke and ending up in a nursing home.
Day One 
The Winter Solstice is upon us. It was at this time of year, many years ago, that  I rode my bicycle over to Eucalyptus Street to see my old friend Ruth. It was a crisp, sunny day after a long rain, and I was not really in the mood to be stuck indoors, but Ruth had called to say she had something important to tell me.
The moment I stepped inside, I could sense that something unusual was up. Shirley, the next-door neighbor who checked on Ruth twice a day, was in the kitchen dumping oatmeal into the garbage disposal. She didn’t waste any words telling me what was going on. 
“Ruth says she’s going to starve herself to death. But I’ll save these oranges just in case she changes her mind.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“She messed all over herself again this morning. It’s the third time this week. After I cleaned everything up, she got back into bed, and now she says she’s not going to eat or drink another thing.
“I think she had another stroke,” Shirley went on. “I’m not sure. She’s having memory lapses, but I know she’s serious about this. And she says if she waits much longer she might not have enough sense to make this decision.”
My mind flashed back to the many times Ruth and I had talked about death and ways of dying. But even last month she had—except for her fading eyesight—appeared so alert and vital. It was a challenge to keep up with her long, strong legs when I accompanied her on her daily walk to the top of Signal Street. We had gossiped like two teenagers about the lighter side of my love life. Her advice to me had been, “Forget about sex and get on with your life. You’ll feel so free!”
I could barely comprehend the gravity of what Shirley was saying. “The problem is,” she added, “she tries starving herself every time she feels like she can’t take care of herself anymore. This is the third or fourth time she’s threatened to do this.”
“She’s never told me this. How long does she go without food?”
“About three or four days, and then she feels better and starts eating again. But this time I have a feeling she’ll go through with it.”
Ruth had always done things her own way. Most of her friends would have checked into a nursing home by now, but I knew that Ruth would never give up her independence. Unmarried and with no children, she had supported herself as a PE teacher before retiring in Ojai. A Theosophist and lifelong student of esoteric and Eastern thought, she relished her autonomy and privacy.
I walked into Ruth’s bedroom. Her head was perfectly centered on the pillow, and the covers were pulled up to her chin.
“Hi, Ruth. It’s me, Suza.”
“Has Shirley told you about the trouble I’m making?”
“She didn’t put it like that.”
“You know how I feel. I want you to make everybody else understand. I don’t want to live like this!”
I bent down to give her a hug, but she pushed me away. “I want you to help make the others understand. Tell them to leave me alone!”
Ruth was dead serious, and her courage was contagious. “Okay, Ruth. I’ll help you, I promise.”
Coaxing someone as strong-willed as Ruth to eat was out of the question, and I’m not a fan of force-feeding. There were no nearby relatives to help out. Plus, after years of giving end-of-life care, I saw what was ahead. I didn’t want to sentence myself or Ruth to endless days of catheter draining, adult diaper changing, and the spoon-feeding of someone who might eventually no longer recognize me.
The last person I had taken care of, Ada, had been a close friend of Ruth. We had both known Ada when she was still a vibrant, artistic person. But at some point in her late eighties we began to see her slowly deteriorate. Ada didn’t want to live in a nursing home, and she hired me to care for her at home. The day came when her body was nothing more than a bag of bones. She didn’t want to eat. It hurt to breathe. She wanted to die in her own bed. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to resist when well-meaning relatives checked her into the hospital. There, she was somewhat revived. From there, she was transferred to a nursing home where she spent three years strapped into a wheelchair before the end. Ruth and I both visited her regularly, but she no longer knew who she was or where she was.
While visiting Ada, I had seen dying people force-fed chunks of steak and potatoes. Ruth was still sane enough to know that, in a nursing home, the social norms of dying would be imposed on her. It would be almost impossible for her to choose her own way of death.
As if reading my thoughts, Ruth repeated, “Be sure, be darned sure, that everybody knows exactly how I feel.” As if to emphasize her point, she took out her dentures and plopped them into the glass of water on her nightstand. “I won’t be needing these.”
Her face shrank. Without the dentures she looked much older, but it didn’t matter to her how she looked anymore.
“Can you still understand what I’m saying without my teeth in?”
“Yes, it’s just fine,” I replied. “Please just take it day by day. Do what you feel like doing.”
“Ha!” she interrupted. “If I do what I feel like doing, I’ll eat like a glutton.”
Not knowing what else to do, I sat quietly by her bed. Ruth’s room, where she had slept for more than twenty years, felt warm, pleasant, and familiar. There were no offensive smells of  urine and other people’s poop. After a while, I absorbed what Ruth intended to do and it started to feel natural. I recovered from the shock of it all. I held her hand, and it felt like holding the hand of a sick person that you want to encourage to recover. Only we both understood that this would be a different kind of recovery. Our hands were warm and relaxed. We had begun the process of letting go.


Day Four
Three days had gone by before I’d had time to visit Ruth again. She was already so thin from a lifetime of careful vegetarian living, and her spirit so stoic and serene, that I entertained the romantic notion that she would take pleasant leave of her body in just a few days. I envisioned myself holding her hand, just like in the movies. She would give me one last smile, then exhale and enter the great beyond.
When I arrived, a well-fed, oblivious attendant was sitting guard in the living room, engrossed in the TV and a pile of knitting. Shirley had posted a sign on the refrigerator saying, “Ms. Doak does not wish to be disturbed. Do not offer food or water. Only if she asks for it.”
Ruth was flat on her back in exactly the same position, the white sheets pulled tightly up to her chin. Her eyes were closed, but I could tell she wasn’t asleep.
“Ruth, it’s me, Suza.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad you’ve come.”
She opened her eyes and pulled down the covers. Already her face and arms were visibly thinner. We chatted about everything under the sun, just like old times. Eventually the subject came around to her “fast.” I circled her wrist with my thumb and index finger. “Ruth, you’re definitely thinner.”
“Are you comfortable?”
“I’m very comfortable.”
Her sole request was that I wipe the dried skin from her parched lips. The water by her bedside stood untouched.
“Well, what do you think of my little project?” she asked, flashing a toothless grin.
“You mean dying?”
What could I say? That she was brave, sensible, courageous? Crazy?
“Ruth, have you read about other people who’ve done this?”
We discussed certain Zen monks and other people who reportedly refuse all food, water, and medical attention when they feel ready to leave this world. “Most people don’t realize they have that option,” I commented. “Some spiritual teachers gather their family and disciples around them and just leave. Some even predict their exact moment of departure.”
Neither of us had the faintest idea how long the process would take. “Just make sure those attendants Shirley has hired know not to feed me,” Ruth instructed.
I looked at the calendar and counted 18 more days till Christmas. I promised Ruth that I would take time off from work so that I could be with her full-time the whole week before Christmas. Yet, even as I promised this, I doubted that she would survive until then. I also assured her that in a few more days I’d start spending the night and that she could call me at any time.
“This is a good time of year to die,” she said softly. “It’s winter. I’m glad we’ll be together for Christmas. Christmas would be a good day to die.”
“What if you change your mind?”
She shook her grey head and looked at me like I was five years old. “Why would I change my mind? Why would I want to live like this?”
Day Five
I visited Ruth again on her fifth day without food or water. The scene was exactly the same. She was perfectly still in her bed, with the covers pulled up to her chin. Shirley was changing the sheets as often as necessary, and helping her to shower before putting a clean T-shirt and diaper on her. The room was immaculate, with freshly cut roses on the dresser.
Ruth consistently assured us that she was very comfortable and there was nothing she wanted. She had called up the few friends that would understand and told them goodbye. She was leaving it up to Shirley to deal with the few out-of-state relatives who hadn’t visited her in years.
“What shall we talk about, Ruth?” I asked.
“It’s such a long wait . . . Reading would help pass the time. Could you read to me from Kim?”
As I read, she occasionally interrupted to correct my pronunciation. It was during this hour that she lost her voice. By the time I left, she could barely whisper her request to have the dried skin wiped from her lips.
The warm winter sunlight felt good as I headed for home. It was a relief to step out of Ruth’s house and back into the stream of life. This was only the fifth day, and already I was weary of my friend’s dying process.
Day Seven
 A whole week had gone by. As I entered her room, Ruth lay motionless like an empty shell. I took her bony hand. “How do you feel, Ruth?” I asked.
For several minutes there was silence, and I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then, with great effort, she whispered, “I’ve looked forward to this for years.” I sat on her bed with my eyes closed and allowed myself to relax.
Shirley interrupted our reverie. I offered to take Ruth to the shower while Shirley changed the sheets. Ruth clutched my arms and strained to a sitting position. It took a while for her to swing her legs over the side of the bed. I helped her remove her T-shirt and diaper, trying not to stare at her emaciated body.
“These disposable diapers are great,” she whispered as she grasped the portable potty at her bedside to raise herself to an upright position. I put my arm around her and supported her down the hallway to the bathroom.
While Ruth lathered her lower body, I washed her hair and armpits. She liked the water full blast, and very hot. “Oh, the water feels so good. It feels so good to be clean . . .” It occurred to me that perhaps she’d been drinking water in the shower all this time, and that was why she hadn’t yet died of thirst. But I never saw her swallow a single drop. I dried her with her favorite pink towel and eased her skeleton back into a clean T-shirt and diapers.
The shower had completely exhausted her. She thanked Shirley for the crisp feel of the clean sheets. Even with my ear right up to her lips, I could barely hear her.
“I’m so lucky to have friends like you.” She asked us to pull the covers right up to her chin, then added, “You can leave any time you want.”
We kissed several times. “Goodbye, Ruth. I love you very much.”
“And I love you.”
Days Eight and Nine
I returned late the next night and slept in Ruth’s living room. When I checked her in the morning, she was in an unusually happy mood. Perhaps she felt that her “little project” was nearly over. Yet I still had doubts that she could see it through to the end. I worried about her becoming disoriented. In a moment of weakness and hunger, she might ask an attendant for breakfast.
“What day is it now?” she whispered.
“It’s Friday.”
She looked puzzled. “It’s Friday morning,” I repeated. “It’s the beginning of your eighth day without food.”
It seemed to take her a few minutes to understand, or was she finally feeling the full impact of her intent? “Oh, the waiting takes such a long time . . . I can live a long time without fat on my body . . .” she finally whispered.
I took a deep breath. “How much longer do you think it will take till you’re dead?”
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it. If I say four more days I might be wrong and still find myself here talking to you!”
Shirley rarely hired strangers for the night vigil, but several different women “babysat” during daytime hours when she or I couldn’t be there. The note forbidding any food or drinks remained posted on the refrigerator. Since Ruth slept most of the time, I don’t think any of the attendants actually realized she was starving herself to death.
On Friday night my boyfriend, Paul, came over. Ruth’s emaciated form didn’t faze him. Ruth was pleased to see him, and motioned for him to put his ear by her lips.
“Aren’t you a chiropractor?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, unsuspecting.
“Well, then,” she responded with a naughty look, “isn’t there something you can do to my neck to hurry things along?”
“I can’t do that!”
“Sure you can! I won’t tell!”
“That’s easy for you to say! You’ll be free and happy. I’ll be in jail!”
Days Ten and Eleven
I always knew Ruth had the option of changing her mind. Yet I was shocked when she confided on the tenth morning, “Shirley and I talked about my fast again yesterday. Tomorrow I’m going to make a decision.” Then she added wearily, “I’ve come this far. Maybe I can see it through . . .”
Part of me resented that I might be going through this whole ordeal for nothing. Not that I wanted her to die, but if she began eating, and then changed her mind about living a month from now, I knew that Shirley and I would have a hard time finding the patience to help her again.
When I returned the next day, the look on Shirley’s face startled me. She informed me that the night nurse had never told the daytime attendant that Ruth didn’t want any phone calls. Two out-of-state relatives had called, and had begged Ruth to “eat a little something—sip some tea and try to hang on till Christmas so we can see you.”
Shirley was furious. She had consulted Ruth’s lawyer, who said that as long as Ruth was of sound mind she had the right to stop eating. “These relatives haven’t visited her in years!” she fumed. “I told them that if they talk Ruth into eating, we’ll put her in a rest home and they can just come and get her and take care of her themselves!”
Following the call, Ruth had drunk half a cup of chamomile tea. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That night, her urine smelled of strong chamomile tea, and she expelled foul-smelling gas into the toilet. When I thought she was finished, I half-carried her back to bed. As we sat talking, I could hear her insides rumble. That should have warned me to grab a diaper.
Suddenly she whispered, “I think I have to go!” I pulled back the covers and frantically grabbed bunches of paper towels to clean her. Then I opened every door and window to air out the house. As I washed her and changed the bedding, I thought, “If Ruth keeps on living, someone else will have to do this job on a regular basis.”
Just as I was about to put another diaper on her, it started again. I grabbed more towels and buried everything, sheets and all, in a double garbage bag. Cleaning her up the second time, I felt more convinced than ever that Shirley and I should encourage her to see this through to the end.
Day Twelve
Ruth’s mind is definitely still intact. On the twelfth day she whispers, “Have you heard about the commotion my fast caused on Sunday?”
“Yes, I did!”
“Well, everything is all right now. At first my niece didn’t understand, but now there’s peace in the family.”
That answered my next question. Ruth had taken in nothing but half a cup of chamomile tea in twelve days. Her withered face was serene as she whispered, “I’m so glad everyone understands.”
There was a full moon that night. We held hands for a long time. Again, there was that feeling of letting go—a long unspoken goodbye. Late that night, with the full moon shining on her shrunken face, she whispered clearly, “I feel the change is coming.”
About midnight she asked, “What day is it now?”
“It’s Tuesday . . . it’s been twelve days.”
“That’s a long time. I think it’s coming soon.”
I prayed that she would die this night.
Day Thirteen
I was feeling utterly naïve. I told myself to stop anticipating that Ruth was going to die soon. This morning both her regular doctor and her osteopath were coming to see her. They had both known Ruth for years, and Shirley and I had great hope that they could give us some idea as to how much longer she would live.
“How’d you sleep, Ruth?” I asked.
“I sleep the sleep of the dead.” She laughed at her own joke, and appeared incredibly alert.
The osteopath, a tall, solemn-looking fellow, arrived first. I assumed that Shirley had informed him of Ruth’s condition. After the long days of silence, his loud voice seemed to echo in the room. Maybe he thought she was hard of hearing.
“How’s your appetite, Ruth?”
You stupid fool, I thought. He’s probably asked that same question for the last ten years.
I took him aside. “Hasn’t Shirley told you that Ruth hasn’t eaten for two weeks?”
He shrugged and automatically continued his exam. He listened to her heart, took her blood pressure, and pronounced that everything was normal. I felt relieved when he finally took her hand and sat briefly by her bedside.
The doctor’s presence felt somewhat like the long-awaited arrival of the midwife at a home birth. “How much longer do you think Ruth will last?” I asked.
“It’s impossible to say. All her vital signs are normal. It could be tonight or it could be a long time still.”
The MD arrived just as the DO was leaving. He was well acquainted with Ruth’s philosophy and, in prior discussions concerning death, had agreed never to do anything to prolong her life against her wishes. His main concern was that she be kept comfortable. “I won’t order any life-saving measures,” he assured me. “Ruth and I discussed this a long time ago. If you have any problems with friends or relatives, have them speak to me. Our aim is to keep her comfortable. Give her chipped ice or water if she wants it.”
He, too, checked her vital signs and confirmed that there was nothing unusual.
“Do you want water?” he asked her.
“Do you feel hungry?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes. Very comfortable.”
Shirley was in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies. It didn’t seem quite right to be baking goodies with someone starving to death in the next room! I worried that the sweet, spicy aromas would arouse Ruth’s appetite.
A neighbor knocked on the door and asked if she could visit. She’d heard that Ruth was ill and might be dying. I went into the bedroom and asked Ruth if Mrs. Perry could come in.
She motioned for me to wipe her lips, which are now completely shrunken inside her mouth. “Tell her she can come in.”
Like the doctor, this neighbor assumed that Ruth was hard of hearing. As soon as she shouted, “I came to say goodbye,” I regretted allowing her to invade Ruth’s sanctuary. But Ruth whispered back, with all the spunk she could muster, “I may be here a long time yet!”
The neighbor burst into sobs. “You’ve known happier times, haven’t you?”
Mortified, I pulled her aside and told her not to say things like that. No wonder Ruth didn’t want visitors! I escorted Mrs. Perry back into the kitchen and left it up to Shirley to get rid of her.
Closing my eyes, I waited for the room to feel peaceful again. “Ruth, I think we’d better post a sign over your bed that says I CAN HEAR YOU PERFECTLY. I AM NOT DEAF.”
“They mean well.”
Day Fourteen
Like a midwife checking on a laboring mother long overdue, I peeked in on Ruth briefly the evening of the fourteenth day. She lay so still, and the spark of life in her dehydrated body seemed so faint that I placed my face close to hers to be sure she was still breathing. She was deep asleep, and I left the room without disturbing her.
A new attendant was watching TV. “How has Ruth been today?” I asked.
“Oh, she just sleeps all the time. She never wants to eat.”
None of the attendants seemed to notice how close to death Ruth was.
When I returned later that night, Ruth was still sleeping. I really believed that tonight she would die. The house was deathly still, and for the first time I started to get the creeps. Shirley had decorated a Christmas tree, but even the blinking lights failed to dispel my sense of foreboding.
When it was close to midnight, Ruth woke briefly. I reassured her that I was spending the night. She clutched my hand and then sank back into her deathlike state. But sleep eluded me. I could hear Ruth fidgeting.
At around 2 a.m., she struggled to get out of bed to use the potty chair. I lifted her skeleton into an upright position. She moved so slowly, I feared she would collapse. She slumped over on the potty, but insisted on waiting there until a bit of urine finally dribbled out. I couldn’t comprehend how her kidneys continued to function.
Now I was really getting the creeps. Ruth’s eyes were glassy and unfocused. Her body continued to endure, but her spirit seemed to be ebbing in and out. It was 3 a.m. before I got her bones settled back under the sheets. Finally I, too, lost consciousness.
Day Fifteen
Christmas was only six days away. We had all grown weary of waiting for Ruth to die—especially Ruth herself. Her body was unusually restless this night, and I wished we’d rented a hospital bed with rails. Instead, we barricaded her into the bed with six chairs.
Again at midnight, she began to fidget as if her spirit were fighting to fly out of her body. I checked on her frequently. Fear gripped me. Why couldn’t her flesh release her spirit? Why couldn’t she relax and let go?
The house felt cold and eerie, and was filled with a foul, musty odor. We had invited death, but my instinct was to let life flow into the house. I opened all the windows and let the fresh air in. Ruth didn’t care how cold it was. I buried my own body deeper under the blankets.
At almost the exact moment as the previous night, I heard her struggling to get out of bed. The sight of her skin dangling off her bones was unnerving. She no longer had the strength to sit upright, and doubled over on the potty chair.
As I helped her to lie down, I prayed over and over, “Release this woman from her body.” But Ruth’s body continued its inherent task of surviving. Even her hair and nails were continuing to grow. Her heart continued its ceaseless repetitions—the senseless task of pumping life force through her dying body. I felt that the time had come to give Ruth a merciful injection, but had no idea what that would be or how to get it.
I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just die in her sleep. Was there something worrying her, something unsaid? Several times I asked her, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” She always shook her head, murmuring, “No. No. No.” She seemed as perplexed to find herself still living as I was.
Day Sixteen
It had now been sixteen days. On this night I was so exhausted that I napped at home before going over for the night shift. Shirley had called earlier to say she had to leave by 9:00 p.m. When I woke up it was already past 9:00, and by the time Paul drove me over I was half an hour late and still half asleep.
As I walked in the door, I tried to assure myself that Ruth was asleep as usual and probably hadn’t even noticed that no one had been at home with her. When I entered her room, her bed was empty. My mind went blank. In panic, I quickly searched the bathroom. Had my worst fears of someone “rescuing” Ruth and rushing her to the emergency room come true? As I yelled for Paul, I saw that Ruth had fallen off the far side of her bed and was hanging face down, half-on-half-off the floor. She was tangled up in her bedding and it looked as if she had bumped her forehead on the nightstand.
Shaken, we maneuvered her back onto the mattress. Paul checked her pulse. Ruth was still in this world. I placed a cold compress on her head while Paul rearranged the covers. We had no way of knowing whether she’d fallen just after Shirley left or soon before we’d arrived. She could have been hanging off the bed like that for more than half an hour!
Ruth began to fidget in a state of frustrated agitation. She coughed and spat, then motioned frantically for a Kleenex. She spat up globs of mucous several times, being very careful to spit only in the Kleenex and not make any mess. I didn’t know if she was coughing and spitting because she had been lying face down or if this was the death rattle I had heard about. Then she wet her diaper. I thought, If she’s dying, why change it? Why disturb her? But, being uncertain, I asked her to lift her bottom while I arrange a new diaper underneath. She seemed to understand everything. I hoped she wasn’t angry that no one was here when she fell out of bed.
She remained restless. I felt how sick and tired she was of still being alive, and cursed myself for not getting rails as we made another barricade of chairs around her bed. We had to keep moving her back to the center of the bed. Later on I realized that we were witnessing the final moments of her spirit wrestling with her body for release.
Then Paul took charge. Like a labor coach, he held her hand. “Let go,” he whispered. “Let go.”
Ruth pursed her lips and motioned for the Vaseline. I asked if she wanted me to clean her mouth with a wet cloth. She shook her head vigorously. Absolutely not. For the last time, I wiped her lips. I had done all I could. Once more I said goodbye, and then left her alone with Paul. I could hear him softly talking: “Be at peace, Ruth. You’re going somewhere
beautiful . . .”
Later he told me that she had stared intently at him for a long time. She had squeezed his hand as much as she had strength to and then turned her head away. He’d had the strong impression that she wanted him to leave, that she wanted to die alone.
Winter Solstice Liberation: The Last Asana, Mahasamadhi*
When I woke up it was Sunday at 4 a.m., the morning of the Winter Solstice. Ruth must be dead, I thought. But then I had thought that so many times before. I examined her closely in the dim light of her night light. Still unsure, I woke up Paul. He turned on the overhead light. Ruth’s head was perfectly centered on the pillow. Already she was turning yellow. Paul checked her pulse. He closed her eyes and covered her face with the sheet. Ruth was gone. This time she was really dead.
I called Shirley. Upon hearing the news, she told me that Ruth had been unusually alert and talkative the previous afternoon, and that they’d had a wonderful, warm final visit.
Ruth’s doctor arrived to sign the death certificate. [When did Paul leave?] An ambulance arrived to take the body to be cremated. Ruth hadn’t wanted a funeral.
I walked up Signal Street in time to see the sun rising above the snowcapped Topa Topas. It was an incredible relief to be alive and out in the open air.
Now, years later, I think about everything that I experienced in helping Ruth to leave her body while awake, aware, and alert. I close my eyes and clearly see Ruth’s image. I can still see her striding vigorously up North Signal Street with her long, strong, independent legs, a smile on her face. Looking back, I see that spiritually I was just a child. I didn’t fully grasp the great gift Ruth was giving me by asking me to be her guardian through her last days on Earth.
* * *
I don’t know if I believe this, but I’m open to the possibility. [This shouldn’t be in italics, but I can’t get it out.]
Mahasamadhi (the great and final Samadhi) is the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body at the time of death. [1][2] A realized yogi (male) or yogini (female) who has attained the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi (enlightenment) will, at an appropriate time, consciously exit from the body and cease to live. This is known as Mahasamadhi. Each one prepares for and enters Mahasamadhi in a unique fashion.
* * *
Adapted from Suza’s forthcoming memoir, Ojai Stories. A version of this story appears in the book,Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of stories by Phil Bolsta. Foreword by Caroline Myss. Atria Books, 2008.

Savasana–the Death Pose

August 20, 2014

August 8, 2014

If someone asked me about the defining moment of my training to be a yoga teacher, I would probably say it was those moments spent observing people during the dying process—both at home and in various end-of-life care settings.

So far this morning, my yoga practice has mainly been to lie still in Savasana, the Corpse Pose. “Shava” or “Sava” means corpse. In the book Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language, author Swami Sivananda Radha cut to the chase and called Savasana the death pose. She said that, if we don’t want to be a living corpse, then the purpose of life has to be established: “If you want to be an active participant in your life and not a parasite, then the dynamic interdependence between life and death has to be recognized, and the two have to meet in directed and concentrated interaction.”


I don’t usually do Savasana first thing in the morning, but I woke up feeling tired and out of sorts. My usual quick cure for feeling overwhelmed is to hang upside down in my wall ropes, lie back over my extra-high backbender, or relax on a bolster in the Goddess Pose (Supported Bound Angle Pose). Or take a walk with my dogs. Or go back to bed! But this morning the peace and quiet of Savasana called me. I did just enough Downward Facing Dog Pose, gentle twists, and leg stretches to get the kinks out of my body so that I could lie still without fidgeting.

In Savasana, the body lies perfectly aligned on the floor, face-up and completely relaxed. The mind is alert and aware, observing the river of the breath and consciously feeling the bones—the skeletal frame of the body—lying heavy on the floor and the muscles letting go. The eyes are closed, sinking in their sockets; the gaze is inward; the tongue and jaw are loose; the arms rest at the sides of the body, palms up; the extended legs lie slightly apart. The body remains as motionless as a corpse.

Savasana gives us the experience of symbolic death—death to everything we identify with—and allows us to satisfy, while still alive, the deep need to be reborn fresh and new.

In the deeper levels of Savasana, we feel the body as a shell—the temple of the spirit, or whatever words resonate to that effect—as we experience the pleasant feeling of letting go. As the mind follows the peaceful flow of the breath, its usual busy activity slowly subsides. The senses gradually withdraw and become still. Our earthly concerns are, at least for the moment, put to rest.

As B.K.S. Iyengar states, “The best sign of a good Savasana is a feeling of deep peace and pure bliss. Savasana is a watchful surrendering of the ego. Forgetting oneself, one discovers oneself.”

To this I humbly add: Another sign of a good Savasana is that one feels one’s sense of humor returning.

And that is why I practiced Savasana so early this morning. 8170003

* * *
A note about the photo:
A bolster or folded cotton blanket under the legs, a ten-pound sandbag (or other weight) across the pelvis, and an eye pillow to quiet the movement of the eyes help the body to relax.

Photo Credit: Ruth Miller

This photo is from my book, Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause. The model is my longtime student, Catherine Meek.
— in Ojai, CA

Winter Solstice Liberation: Mahasamadhi, The Last Asana

December 22, 2013

December 21, Winter Solstice 2013

Some of you may have read this story before. This week, I received a letter from a friend who had just read it for the first time.

He wrote: “You have no idea what a joy it was to stumble across your account of Ruth’s passing. As you may recall, my wife and I were best friends with Ruth for many years. We lived in her apartment; she took us in when times were tough, and later on we lived across the street from her. She wrote to us sporadically after we left Ojai. We found out about her death and its manner through a third party. So many memories of Ruth return with reading your account. She had told us years earlier that this was the way she’d probably die.”

Suzaji's Blog


Winter Solstice Liberation: Mahasamadhi, the Last Asana

December 1987

In the end—and it will end—your life will seem to have sped by like a fleeting dream.

—Doris “Granny D” Haddock

The Winter Solstice is upon us. It was at this time of year, many years ago, that I rode my bicycle over to Eucalyptus Street, as I often did, to see my old friend Ruth. It was a crisp, sunny day after a long rain, and I was not really in the mood to be stuck indoors, but Ruth had called to say she had something important to tell me.

The moment I stepped inside, I could sense that something was up. Shirley, the next-door neighbor who checked on Ruth twice a day, was in the kitchen dumping oatmeal into the garbage disposal. She didn’t waste any words telling me what was going on. 

Ruth says she’s going to…

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Centuries have gone by, and still people are running in the streets, killing each other

August 16, 2013

Centuries have gone by, and still people are running in the streets, killing each other. You have to wonder, if life is a “school,” if there is such a thing as reincarnation—or even if there isn’t—why we haven’t learned our lessons and graduated into a more evolved condition by now.

Maybe my old dad, a survivor of the atomic bomb who is ready to fly away and meet his maker anytime now, is so right when he tells me, “Suzanne, civilization is just a veneer. Two days without food, and it’s all gone . . . the devil is real, Suzanne. People shed blood over a piece of bread.”

Some years ago when I worked as a yoga therapist at a health center, I found myself in a huge hotel ballroom filled with chiropractors and other practitioners, all getting some kind of emotional-stress-relief body work. Multiple massage tables had been set up, the lights were dimmed, and soon the room was filled with people moaning, groaning, and sobbing–noisier than the Pentecostal revival meetings I used to attend. The collective sound was like a scene from a funeral.

I vividly recall saying, “My God, listen to all these people crying! And these are the lucky ones! These are not starving refugees, or survivors of prison camps or other traumatic ordeals!”

But later, as life went on, I began see that even these “lucky ones” had been through the shocks of life.

I learned that the successful doctor I fell in love with and put on a pedestal had had an abusive, alcoholic father. He grew up in foster homes where his head was pushed face down into the toilet, to make sure he understood he was a worthless piece of shit.

Combine that with the trauma of the Vietnam war, and no wonder he was wailing on the massage table along with the rest of them.

While the world is burning, we who live in relative peace have the luxury of reflection and healing. As I write this, I laugh at the full-page ad in a yoga magazine showing a bearded, white-robed, “self-realized” Himalayan yoga master who shamelessly promises the moon. The ad says:

“Rejuvenate Body, Mind, and Soul.” “Eliminate Emotional Suffering.” “Burn Negative Karma.” “Achieve Expanded Consciousness.”

“Half a minute of Kriya Meditation brings about a year of Natural Spiritual Unfoldment.”

Even spiritual magazines need paid advertising to survive.

When you’re young, “The Lightening Path to Self-Realization” to “restore each of us to the glory of life” sounds entirely possible. If I were twenty years old again, I might have gone with my boyfriend to check out this amazing great yogi master at one of the free satsangs. God knows we went to see plenty of lesser ones!


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