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Dying Surrounded by Laughter and Song

Shutterstock / Nikos Goulis

A hospice volunteer shares insights inspired by two peaceful deaths.

She didn’t look dead. “Abby” lay still in her bed, her face relaxed, eyes and mouth softly closed, her skin color warm but with just a touch of blue around her lips. She was dressed in her own pretty bedgown with an elegant coverlet pulled up to her chest, her hair was clean and brushed; she truly appeared to be peacefully sleeping except for the absence of the familiar rise and fall of breath.  She had been dead for three hours. A soft breeze from the tall open window caressed the room, photos of loved ones and flowers adorned the tables—all was tranquility.   

Abby died in the Zen Hospice Project’s Guest House, a residential hospice founded on the principles of mindful and compassionate end-of-life care, housed in a beautifully restored Victorian home in San Francisco, California. Family, friends and caregivers at the Guest House had surrounded Abby in loving support as she died and now her body lay in this quiet, sun-filled space waiting for the Neptune Society to retrieve her. Abby is one of the countless terminally ill people who have come to spend their final days in these airy, sunlit rooms filled with antique furniture, meticulously painted decorative molding, artwork and fresh flowers. The Guest House is a beautiful place to die.

In my role as a volunteer caregiver at the Guest House, I spent time sitting quietly with Abby as she slept and as dementia increasingly made her waking hours restless. I also sat alongside Abby with her daughter and her many friends—a lively bunch of women prone to raucous laughter as they shared wine and stories in her room. They told me she had always enjoyed food, wine, music and good times with friends—truly a generous-hearted and fun-loving woman. Fortunately for everyone, Abby’s dementia seemed to be largely pleasant, her face often blooming with enormous smiles, even though she couldn’t speak or seem to understand where she was. She giggled joyously when watching her favorite TV celebrity, Anthony Bourdain, and she especially enjoyed sherbet spooned into her mouth, making faces of ecstatic delight with each spoonful. Surrounded by the laughter of loving friends and family, Abby lived with mirth and sensual pleasure till the last, a graceful lesson for all.

After her death, a simple yet poignant farewell practice called the Flower Petal Ritual was held for her as her body was wheeled through the Guest House garden toward the waiting hearse. Pausing amid the bamboo, flowers and herbs of the garden, family and friends, Guest House caregivers and even another resident took time to sprinkle flower petals around Abby’s head and body. Her face was lovely and serene in the full sunlight. People spoke words of love and gratitude and shared humorous memories with tears streaming down their faces and wine glasses raised. Laughter mixed with grief and as I stood with them I, too, had tears on my smiling face. I wasn’t as close to Abby as I sometimes am with other residents at the Guest House. Nevertheless, love, laughter and grief are universal. Amid this celebration and sadness, I embraced the deep sorrow, love and joy in my own life.

Abby’s soft hair, now decorated with yellow flower petals, shone in the sun as a respectful gentleman rolled her body forever away, never to be seen again by her loved ones. The tenderness of this final goodbye to Abby in the lovely open-air garden was profoundly moving and contained a kind of healing for me. For an hour afterwards, Abby’s family and friends sat in the garden laughing and crying together, beginning their own healing as well.

Another resident at the Guest House, a woman only in her late 30s, also had a large group of loving friends and family. I never actually got to meet “Alice” because she was here so briefly, although I did meet her loved ones. A generous dozen or more crowded into her room as she lay actively dying. They were all singing to her—openly weeping and singing. I could hear them as I arrived for my shift, their voices wavering, not holding back, drifting down the grand staircase and gently imbuing the house with ethereal beauty and sorrow.  It gave me goose bumps and tears sprang to my eyes in the presence of this glorious group expression of love and grief. 

Climbing the stairs, I passed several of Alice’s friends and family, all with wet eyes. Quietly weeping men and women, from the very old to the very young, stood in the hall outside her open door, waiting their turn to stand vigil and sing at her bedside. Her room was so crowded that I didn’t even try to look in on Alice. The nurses checked her from time to time and reported that she was calm and fading. Alice and her family and friends were from a different culture from mine and I was in awe of their ability to love and grieve this openly and artfully together. I wondered what it must be like for her to be held by so much love and song as her life was leaving her body.  Her friends and family stayed with her for hours until she peacefully died, bathed in their love songs.

Abby and Alice were graced with community who held them in love till the end, making their final days and hours of life rich with laughter and song. We should all be so lucky. Many of us are not. Opening to these shared experiences of love and grief at the Guest House expands my heart and my ability to live deeply and, hopefully, to die well when my time comes.

Learn more about how Zen Hospice Project is helping to change the experience of dying.