Holding Space for the Dying

“One can be in pain, but not suffering. One can also be suffering, but not in pain.” The fog over my head lifted a few inches when I read what Elaine Yang of Reiki Glow Singapore wrote in response to a Q&A I had emailed her a few weeks ago.

That there is a difference between pain and suffering is perhaps what many of us fail to instinctively see when confronted with the mortality of a loved one.

I had tapped on Elaine, my Reiki teacher and by now a friend, for advice because of her experience in providing healing to the ill and dying. And largely because I flounder in this area.

As a child, I had glimpses of my grandparents struggling with increasing frailty and loss of memory towards the end. There was however a general air of acceptance – the biology of human lifespan was kicking in; there was nothing left to do but to trudge each day to their best ability. The weight of their emotional baggage was never revealed to the grandchildren.

Today, medical science has advanced exponentially. The number of diseases (and their subtypes) that can be diagnosed has increased, along with treatment options for what used to be deadly conditions. It should be great news, only it sometimes isn’t.

The tug-of-war between prolonging life and preserving quality of life couldn’t be more stark when a beloved aunt of my husband died of a cruel, debilitating illness in the earlier part of 2020. She had vehemently refused to be sent to the hospital after a fainting spell but was overruled by understandably concerned family. Aunt W breathed her last breath a couple of months later on the hospital bed.

It was an event that struck the family deeply on so many levels. Sustained by aggressive medication, she was clearly in pain and suffering during her last days. She believed and made it clearly known that the hospital had robbed her of life itself.

Suffering is subjective

It is a tricky situation, Elaine concedes, especially when faced with a serious health condition and when there are many voices adding to the chaos.

“Some people value quality of life vs extension of life, and some people the other way around. One is only better than the other based on our own beliefs,” says Elaine. “So during the end of days, the question comes down to this. Do we respect the wishes of the one who’s ill, and trust that they know best what is right for them?”

If the patient is lucid, give him or her all the factual information, not our beliefs of what’s right or wrong, that is needed for her to make sound judgement, she recommends. “It is ultimately their decision and their journey.”

The art of staying neutral

While I wasn’t close to Aunt W, I often wondered how I could have better held space for her during the times we interacted.

Just as how we give our friends a safe, non-judgemental space to vent on bad days, holding space for the ill and the dying means supporting their process, allowing them to express their pain, fear, grief and anger in the way they want without imposing our own opinion.

“What we feel is best for them, is based on our own judgement, beliefs, and projections. When someone is ill, for instance, while it is true that they can feel supported having someone with them, if the person isn’t holding space well, it can actually add more stress to the system, which really isn’t helping a person who is already ill and in pain,” says Elaine.

It brings to mind the times my grandmother had lashed out in frustration while caring for her own ailing husband at home; and the occasions where family members had disagreed with Aunt W because of her refusal for early medical intervention.

There is no way one can rightfully pick a side. Where can we find the middle ground?

Holding space with Reiki 

I found myself at a loss for words and was trying hard not to cry when Aunt W shared her anguish during one visit. Before leaving though, I mustered enough bravery to ask if she would be willing to receive distant Reiki. “Perhaps it could be a gentle painkiller,” I thought. She readily agreed to the suggestion.

The very morning after I had conducted the 20-minute session, news came that she had instructed her healthcare team to go ahead with tube feeding – something she had opposed to before. The nutritional boost was vital to prolonging life, but the process of insertion was excruciating.

Had it been the right thing to do, to extend healing? From my vantage point at the time, I couldn’t trust if Reiki had indeed been channeled for the recipient’s highest good. What if I had unwittingly added more pain and suffering to the situation, assuming the Reiki had played a role in her decision making?

Elaine brings up a clarifying perspective. “Reiki supports the recipient in coming back into balance and alignment, whatever that may mean for them in that moment– and it may not necessarily be on a physical level at all.”

“Your aunt had felt more empowered to make a decision for herself that she believes is right for her, and that in and of itself, is healing – everything else is just our own opinion.”

Elaine recalls two daughters who requested for Reiki healing for their father who had been given a poor prognosis. One daughter was hoping Reiki could help Dad do an about-turn; the other just wanted the session to help ease his suffering, she recalls.

Elaine didn’t share a common language with the gentleman who was also not lucid at the point, so the session was held in silence.

“He was visibly agitated and was unable to lay still on the bed because of the many tubes connected to him. However, within seconds of starting the treatment, he went very quiet and still. In the entire hour, there may or may not have been any alleviation of pain, but he experienced peace – and that is where the healing is.”

She elaborates: “Healing happens when there is transcendence of suffering. In hanging on to our critically ill loved ones, or insisting we know best what is right for them, we suffer, as they do.”

 I’m struck by the truth of Elaine’s anecdote. If everyone starts off with the goal of healing, not necessarily by conventional treatment, conversations in hospital wards would probably sound entirely different.

I know we’ve only just scratched the surface of this murky topic. But it’s important to start somewhere. As I see my own elderly parents now thinking about their own mortality, I can only imagine more questions and dilemmas arising along the way. But perhaps, if we could just remember to hold space for them and us, the journey would be far less muddled.


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