Best Laid Plans

Death comes on its own timetable.

As an end of life doula, you wouldn’t expect this to surprise me. Yet, it does.

Every time.

I was reminded of this truth most recently while companioning a woman in her late fifties. For more than three months we had been creating her vigil plan — a list of music she wanted played, poems and verses she wanted read, aromatherapy that would soothe her, recording a guided visualization that those who visited could play for her, among other lovingly appointed details. It wasn’t easy, and we had fun. We had hard conversations, which often spiraled into bouts of side-splitting laughter. We discussed simple wants that deteriorated her resolve, leaving her in a puddle of tears.

More than anything, she wanted to ensure she wouldn’t be alone when she died. Knowing that those closest to her had issues and circumstances of their own that might prevent them from being with her, it was important for her to know she had made other arrangements. To that end, she asked if I would be with her in her last hours. Without question, I said I would do everything I could to be there.

That was our plan.

Well, one guess as to how that all turned out.

The day before I left town for a long-scheduled retreat, her health took a turn. It became clear to both of us that she was transitioning. And equally clear that because of the length of my trip, I would not be physically with her when she died. We talked in depth about next steps and acknowledged together the grief that comes with loss of expectation. Despite her disappointment, she shared her faith in God’s timing. Despite mine, I expressed my trust that somehow I would be exactly where I needed to be and would connect with her in other ways. It wasn’t how we thought it would go. But I was able to remind her that life — and death — rarely is. As I sat with her making phone calls to her family and friends, some of whom needed to travel a distance to be there, word traveled throughout her community and people began to arrive.

During the following three days, they took turns staying with her day and night until her death, never leaving her side. Even though I was 1,500 miles away, I was able to stay energetically connected and was with her as well. These circumstances felt grandiose to her, far too much support to expect from anyone. It was just as I had hoped.

She died peacefully.

We make plans, and life continues on its own trajectory. We make choices that feel comfortably like we have some control, and everything turns on a dime. We set intentions for things to unfold a certain way, and we are unceremoniously reminded that it is not up to us.

Sometimes though, if we leave space for curiosity and wonder, if we open to the unknown rather than fighting what is happening, life rises to meet us in ways we could never expect. Giving us exactly what we want and never dreamed we could ask for.//