Dancing with Death

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I’ve been dancing with death. I believe that death begats birth…and I appreciate the tender new soul growth emerging from the soil of loss. Truly I understand the circle of life…yet my heart grieves still… 

Before we could bury Gran, I had to attend another funeral. 

Just one day after Gran passed; I chose to join my husband’s family at the beach. One of Gran’s favorite places. But they gathered without me…instead I drove 95 miles from the foggy coast to the high desert to see a patient. 

I don’t usually make house calls. Most of my patients live 50 or miles from me. Some are out of the country. So making house calls is not really practical. But I did this time. 

Anita is one of my favorites…not that I should have favorite patients…but we have been working together for almost four years…really tough healing work, the kind that shifts the soul…hers and mine. Anita has cancer. 

She came to me for a spiritual healing. Her cancer had advanced and her family thought this was it. I asked her. “Do you want to live or are you ready to die? Either way I’ll help you.” She chose life. So I did my best to help her live. 

Nearly four years of research, trying the best in alternative care—that was her desire—and integrating with some conventional therapies...the best of both worlds. It was a rollercoaster ride—thrilling and scary. I am not a cancer specialist. I’m a hormone specialist. But I’m really good at medical detective work. And I favor the underdog. I hate when patients are not given choices. So I try to investigate the root cause of their dis-ease and usually find something we can work on. Sometimes the root is physical. Sometimes it’s psychological. Always I dig up spiritual roots. 

So in our very first consultation, I got to the heart of the matter. Clearly there was not time to waste with stage IV head and neck cancer.  The conventional physicians she had consulted had not given her much hope…so she explored alternative treatments on her own. It’s sad that we don’t integrate medicine as much as we should. We are all on the wheel of health care together…why can’t we partner? 

Well, at least my patients are willing to partner with me. And as far as I’m concern, it’s their dance. They pick the music, I follow their lead. And I love to dance! And I haven’t met anyone I can’t partner with on the dance floor. The secret is being open to receive them. Same with patients…if I am open to receive them…our dance is harmonious. 

So I danced with Anita. Followed her lead through the slow laborious melodies and the rapid tumultuous tunes. It was always her dance, not mine. Not that I didn’t have to remind myself on more than one occasion. Like last year, just before her daughter’s wedding. We were nearly there…having accomplished the last of her goals. She wanted to attend her daughter’s wedding as healthy and happy as possible. And all looked well…except I had a niggling worry. One that wouldn’t stop pestering me. Her daughter’s wedding was what she was living for…there was nothing beyond seeing her daughter all grown up, graduated from college and happily married. 

So I brought Anita home…Yes, I work at home…in an office on my property, surrounded by healing herb gardens and great energy…but never had I invited a patient to stay with me, until Anita. It was a deep healing journey for both of us. I helped her discover where her “death wish” originated. We all unconsciously and sometimes consciously direct our bodies towards dis-ease. Sometimes towards death. It begins as a belief that manifests in our body as dis-ease. Anita had hers…and I felt that my job was to enlighten her…then help her reverse the “death wish” and replace it with a “life wish”. That meant finding her purpose. 

She named a possible purpose…yet before she left I asked what she learned…and her “purpose” had not stuck… She said, “Being with you, watching you take care of yourself while you take care of me, makes me realize that I’m not taking care of myself as well as I could be.” 

Anita taught me a crucial lesson. BEING is more important than DOING. Walking my Talk…Being my Truth. Taking excellent care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually left the deepest impression on Anita.  When we parted, she thanked me. The following month, she attended her only daughter’s wedding—as whole as possible in the face of her disease—pain-free, able to dance all night, as she wished. 

And afterwards her health diminished. Plagued by complications of metastatic cancer, she rallied for months. She tried a promising alternative therapy, yet the cancer progressed. I hesitated to order that last MRI. I knew she didn’t want to know. And we discovered the worst—the cancer had spread to her brain. 

It was time to let her go…to follow yet another path…this time to a major medical center. A path she had resisted…yet at the end she had to try one more possibility. I knew the specialists would want to try more than she believed in…so I went to the hospital to see her before surgery…to be sure she understood that it was palliative, not curative. She understood but had to do it for her family…to show she tried…everything…even though she was tired…even though she was scared. That was the last time I saw her walking and talking…clear headed…determined…yet knowing there was more. She wasn’t quite ready to go then, but she had accepted her death and felt the extra time would help her daughter let her go. And the last ditch effort to save her would help her husband feel they had exhausted all possibilities. She told me then that she did not want to die in the hospital…reminded me of her wishes…and thanked me for my care. 

Over the last three months, she was enmeshed in conventional cancer treatment. The specialists kept telling her everything looked good…but our phone consults, the reports from the visiting nurse, the lab reports told another story. I knew she was dying but her family did not. So I went to her home to help them let her go. 

All the way there I reminded myself why I had become a Family Nurse Practitioner. This was the circle of life. I birth them and death them…it’s a dance of midwifery into the body and out of the body. Yet still it’s hard to let go. 

When I arrived, Anita’s husband let out a great sigh of relief. I could feel the heavy burden he had carried for so long. I gave him a hug and greeted her daughter and son-in-law. They too were delighted to see me...and escorted me to Anita’s room. 

Anita was a lilac flame…a bright and beautiful energy…very loving, a bit tender, yet strong willed. But that night her brilliance had faded. The energy of the dying fades back to white. Hers had concentrated in her heart chakra only a faintly purple glow. She didn’t have much time. 

Carefully I examined her, describing to her family what I saw. Anita was resting, not comfortably and was barely lucid.  Gently I explained the process of death. What would happen to her physically, mentally and energetically.  They wanted to know why the doctors had not told them the truth. Just two days before, she had radiation and they had to cancel that day’s appointment. Clearly she couldn’t go. Clearly… 

As hard as it is for me to let my patients go, it’s harder for doctors. Death is seen as a failure in medicine. Anita’s husband felt the same. “I don’t know what to do if I can’t fix it.” 

I reassured him that they had done everything possible, but now it was Anita’s time to leave her body. I suggested things that they could do for her to help her be more comfortable and how to be with her energetically. I told them their job now was to imprint themselves with her energy, so when she chooses to come to them, they would more easily receive her. Her husband wasn’t sure about what I was describing, but I could feel his desire to know. 

Her daughter got excited by the possibility and remarked how strange it was that Anita seemed to be seeing things. I perceived the energy of Anita’s mother, dead now some 20 years, in the room as soon as I entered.  I smiled, “Of course, that’s your grandmother! And we’re tripping over a big dog that won’t leave your mother’s side.” Her daughter cried, “That must be Savannah! She died just before Mom came to you.” 

At that moment, Anita opened her eyes and nodded vigorously. Weakly, she waved me to her. I leaned close and she barely grasped my arm and whispered, “Thank you.” 

Anita died just thirty hours later. We got hospice involved just in time so the family had support. In fact, I believe her husband was finally able to let her go when he signed the hospice paperwork the next morning. I called the team who worked with her…my collaborating physician, the dedicated pharmacist, the caring nurse. Tears flowed for all of us…as we supported one another…but for Anita…she was free of her pain, finally. 

Her memorial service was so well attended…she had asked her sisters-in-law to organize a family reunion that weekend. She never made it, but they were all there to say goodbye.

Her family spoke eloquently with pictures of Anita as a young woman floating in the background. But it was her husband’s choice of music that touched my soul… 

“The Dance” by Garth Brooks…”I’m glad that I didn’t know.. the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance. I could of missed the pain, but I would had to miss the dance.” 

Thank you, Anita, for allowing me to dance with you.


 Deborah Maragopoulos MN FNP

Intuitive Integrative Medicine