The soulful dimension of illness and caregiving
The national discussion about serious illness and the journey of the end-of-life is certainly important, meaningful and necessary. So much needs our attention — treatment, financial planning, conversations with loved ones, funeral, burial arrangements, memorial services. However, in addition to the practical concerns, there is a whole other dimension of illness that magnifies, especially as the mortal body begins to fade.
The past five years of my life have been in many ways so unexpected, tragic, heart breaking — and yet, simultaneously, the most profound passage that I have ever traveled. When I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, from New Jersey, my father’s health began to deteriorate and his diabetes and bone degeneration escalated. I lived with him and my mother during his illness for a few years — until he was admitted to an in-house hospice facility during his last weeks. My father’s passing took me on a grief journey that I thought would not end until one day while walking on the beach, a conversation with a stranger (more so an angel in disguise) gave me the message that it was time to release my pain. This would not be my first other-worldly encounter.
Seemingly, when I felt as if my life was returning to a sense of normalcy, my mother fell and the brain scan showed she had stage-four glioblastoma … brain cancer. Three months later, she passed away. As her caregiver in my home, we exchanged an intensity of depth, love and tenderness that penetrated my heart at a level that I did not even know was possible. During her last hours when she was transferred to a hospice center, I called the angels to take her soul — and when she did, the room filled with such a thick scent of incense, frankincense and myrrh, that it was reported by the nurses on duty to administration.
And then I was back at the very same hospice center within a year’s time — at the bedside of my friend who passed from cancer. I slept in his room during his last days and his final words to me were “I love you.” When he awoke the next day, he could no longer speak. And yet, like I did with my mother, I knew exactly when it was time to call the angels to take his soul. I held him in my arms and told him goodbye. I walked out the room and the nurse walked in and said, “He’s gone.” I ran back into the room and put my hands on his chest and called his name. He opened his eyes looked at me — took a few breaths and closed his eyes.
The number of numinous experiences that I have had during these three passages cannot be logically
understood. Yet, I know that mine are from just one testimony in a sea of thousands of testimonies. We are mortal indeed. But, for those of us who believe in the existence of soul — our last breath is not the end; however, instead, it is a moment that passes us through the veil into our next level of existence.
I completely respect if others do not embrace the spiritual dimension of life and death … and life. Yet, this is reality for so many on this earth that to not address it in the medical establishment, with both the opportunity for support, comfort and care — for both caregivers and those passaging through illness — does not adequately serve everyone’s needs. It is a great void that needs attention, conversation and witness, as much as we require understanding in regards to our “mortality” and things of the earth.
My vision is that the soulful dimension of illness and caregiving can become part of a conversation that is not confined to those who serve in certain areas of hospice, such as chaplains and even those who work in the holistic wellness fields who identify as healers. Let an eternal dimension be so prevalent that it becomes as natural as breathing. The time has come to bring the important work of tending to our souls during these passages into the hands of everyone who is present with their loved ones and that they receive the support they need to navigate these journeys. This is my hope.
Jackie Morfesis has a BFA in fine arts, MA in liberal studies and teacher certification from Rutgers University. She held a Rotary Scholarship to Greece in the arts and humanities. An artist, poet and educator, she is a Greek Orthodox Christian and involved with prison ministry in the Charleston area.