Sitting Vigil

He was already in the process of dying when I arrived. He was lying in bed alone, breathing like a fish out of water, mouth open and unconscious. I greeted him, tidied his space and began playing the soothing songs of Threshold Choir on my iPad for him. “You are not alone, I am here beside you…Rest easy…”–these are songs written specifically to be sung at the bedside of the dying, very soothing and comforting. I placed 3 of hospice nurse Barbara Karnes’ booklets, “Gone From My Sight”, “The Eleventh Hour”, and “My Friend, I Care: The Grief Experience” on the bedside table for the family. Then I settled in beside him.


Hearing is the last of the senses to go. And so I talked to him. I told him how much I admired him, how much he had accomplished in life, how beautiful his family was and how much he was loved. I told him what a good life he had had. I told him it was okay to go. I thanked him for letting me spend time with him and told him how much he had taught me. I told him I would remember him.


His son, a chaplain, stopped by. I suggested he read some suitable Bible passages aloud to his father, and I sat with him. Later, his daughter arrived. She was upset by his appearance and how he was breathing. I assured her that he wasn’t in pain, and asked her to share some memories of her father. Laughing through tears, she told me about the “best Dad” anyone could have had. I agreed that she was very lucky. I encouraged her to talk to him, and she did while stroking his arm.


Later, after he died, I sat with his wife. Her face was blank and tearless. “I guess I’m a widow now. I never thought I’d ever be a widow.” I brought her a basin of warm water, put some lavender oil in the water, and handed her a washcloth. “Would you like to wash his face?” Hesitating, she nodded, dipped the cloth in the water and smelled her hands, taking in the soothing aroma of the lavender. Then, so tenderly, she washed his face and the tears began to fall. When she was finished, she thanked me. “That was more comforting than I expected.” I stayed near as the family said their last goodbyes.


Sitting vigil is the greatest privilege and responsibility I have as a Death Midwife. I create and hold the sacred space my patient needs for life’s last rite of passage. It is a holy time. I am also a guide: directing, reassuring, and comforting a family who is grieving and frightened by what they are witnessing. I make it safe and meaningful for them, too. I come away from the experience filled with a profound sense of life and death being part of the same mystery, and I appreciate the experience of living so much more vibrantly because of the death I have just witnessed.


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