I posted on Facebook recently about how my own near-death experience changed my views on the process of dying. Some of you asked that I expand and elaborate on this topic. So here we go …
In October 2013, my husband and I set out on what was supposed to be a day hike – one like the many we had enjoyed in the past. We ended up sojourning into hell.
If you want to read the entire story, click here. But please bear in mind that my views on what happened to us have dramatically changed since I wrote this series for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
.In short, I ended up spending five days and four nights in the Chihuahuan Desert, right on the Texas-Mexico border.
Rick and I began our hike on October 2, 2013. That night, instead of grilling brats and drinking beer, we found ourselves unexpectedly stranded on a cliff that overlooked a spectacularly beautiful canyon.
By the end of Day 2, we had, thankfully, found a spring under a stand of cottonwoods.
On Day 3, I told my husband to leave me because I could no longer walk.
Please know that up until this point, I had been terrified of being left alone in the desert. My fears are what kept me going, plodding along behind my husband even as my physical condition deteriorated.
Even so, after realizing that I couldn’t go on any further, I finally crouched underneath a small mesquite shrub and told Rick to leave me.
Rick made it out that night and summoned help. But it would be another two days before search-and-rescue teams found me. At the hospital, I learned that by the time I was located, I was only a few hours from death. All of my organs had started shutting down.
Here’s the thing – I went from being scared of being alone in the wild to convincing my husband to leave me there.
Why? Because I was pretty sure that I was going to die and I did not want or need him there to witness my death.
I told him to tell our children, then 8 and 10, that I had done my damndest to get back to them. I hoped that by telling him to go, to leave me, that I would be ensuring that our kids had at least one parent raising them. I did, however, also hope that he would be able to get out and send help for me.
Rick made his way to the Big Bend Ranch State Park headquarters around 7:30 p.m. October 4, 2013.
I would be found around noon, two days and two nights later – on October 6, 2013.
What I’m about to do right now is describe my feelings about dying alone.
When I sat down under that shrub, I felt relief. I wanted Rick to go. I knew he stood a good chance of getting out. I knew that something was very wrong with my body and its condition. I could no longer walk. I couldn’t even remain standing.
I understood that I would probably die. Alone. And I spent a long Friday evening (October 4, 2013) reckoning with that after I convinced Rick to go.
I wanted to be alone to die. Even as I held out hope for Rick, I also wanted to do what needed to be done on my own. I didn’t want or need anyone to witness my suffering. I will remain forever convinced that dying is actually a very private endeavor.
Animals seek solitude when they are sick or near death. Native Americans are known to head out into the wild when they sense that their time is near.
After what happened to me in that desert, I am even more convinced that dying was never meant to be a group activity.
I lay under that shrub for two days and two nights. During that time, I was comforted by a variety of vivid hallucinations and storylines. Throughout the ordeal, I also understood at some deeper level that I was free to … leave. At any time. I wasn’t listening to family members begging me to “fight” or to “hold on.” And honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with such pleadings. I needed to be free to live or to die on my terms.
I hoped that my body would be found, yes. I wanted my family to have answers and to have remains to memorialize. But I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel alone. And I didn’t fret over the fact that my family members weren’t hovering over me, singing hymns, holding hands and murmuring apologies or sharing memories.
The thought of a crowd around my deathbed … well, I didn’t want that then and I don’t want it in the future.
I am sharing this in an attempt to offer comfort during this pandemic. I keep hearing people worry about their loved ones dying alone.
Your loved ones are fine. YOU are the ones who are having difficulty with the separations.
The whole deathbed gathering really only benefits those who are there to mourn the person who is about to depart this Earth. It’s a chance for family members to express regrets, offer apologies or to emphasize the love they feel for the loved one who is dying.
But your loved one? He or she is already in another place and time.
I am writing this to reassure you that your presence isn’t required when your beloved family member dies alone in a medical facility or at home.
Instead, focus your energies on those still in need of human contact. Call your grandparents or parents to chat. Send photos to that old family friend who has no living relatives. Be a companion to the living. Because the dying already have moved beyond us all.