Some months ago I had word that a woman I knew was in the last stage of her life. I didn't know Lyn well but had met her a few times; she was cousin of my beloved friend Sue who had died earlier.
What can one do for a person who is dying, at a great distance, and not deeply well known? I asked her by email if she liked poetry. When she enthusiastically answered YES! I began writing to her every few days, including in my emails poetry that had meaning for me. Lyn was delighted, and this continued until she died, peacefully in her senior's residence suite, among friends.
The process of selecting poems for Lyn had its challenges. At first, realizing that many of my favorites referred to death directly or allegorically, I thought this might cut too close to the bone, but Lyn was pleased with my selections, commenting on them in detail. One of them, a childhood poem from my English grandmother, had Lyn analyzing the underlying theme, inclusiveness, which had been quite invisible to me before Lyn pointed it out. To me it just brought memories of my grandmother reciting it, without consideration of any deeper meaning.
Years earlier, in the fall of 2009, when my brother David was dying, cheerfully philosophical to the end, I wrote letters to him every few days, illustrating them with pictures of our shared childhood, and my favorite pictures of him as an adult. And years again before that, it was letters to my dear friend who had retired to England, and found that her cancer had returned after more than a decade silent and was now killing her.
Knowing what to say to a dying person, or what to do for him or her, is a problem for most of us, and we may resort to greeting cards which we hope may at least tell the dying that they are remembered. I recall going from card shop to card shop looking for one for a particular kinsman, and failing to find anything I could think of as appropriate. This triggered the thought that perhaps my own words are POSSIBLE, if I can only figure out what to say.
It helps when the dying are well aware of their situation, and expressions of hope from friends and relatives are simply wrong. It helps when you feel it possible to talk to them (email or letter or in person) about their situation. I have before me an email from Lyn in which she says in effect, "Yes, send me poetry. I know exactly where I am on my journey, and poetry will ease my separation from this world and give me something to think about other than whether it's time for my next pain pill."
So I sent her poetry. And earlier I sent my brother and my friend letters. I know that to the last, these emails and letters were read to the recipients by friends and family, the recipients being too weak to do so themselves.
I think that in this, there is an element of offering the dying a sense of what their legacy is in this world. Not just THAT they will be remembered, but HOW they will be remembered. I don't think many of us will be like Alexander Pope in our latter ends, in his poem Ode to Solitude, the last verse of which is:
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented, let me die.
Steal from this earth and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
I think most of us would like to think there will be a memorial of some kind where those who knew us can go and commune with their memories of us. Less often now this is a gravestone, with people increasingly choosing cremations and natural burials, and burials at sea. My niece got a cherry tree in Beacon Hill Park, overlooking a rose garden where as a Guide she had planted roses. For us, we built a Memory Gazebo, with plaques in memory of those of our relatives and dearest friends, including pets, who have died. There we sit in fine weather, which here in Victoria, BC is early spring to late fall and indeed at times in winter. In high summer, surrounded by the memorials, we float on tides of memory with the scents and colors of flowers, the butterflies wafting on the breeze, and the gentle conversation and calls of the birds in our ears.