With nervous tears, Gabriela, the office manager, let me know that Lilian, a longtime club member and serious Bridge player, would be dying at the end of the week on Friday. At the time, I was President of the American International Women’s Club in Geneva, Switzerland, a place I commuted to from France to be in community and speak English with women from around the world.
It was well known that Lilian had been living with cancer for many years. She would undergo chemotherapy in the morning and play bridge in the afternoon. Lilian was a tough woman – cantankerous, outspoken and possessed a rugged determination to live life fully and not allow cancer to rule her life. I didn’t know her well, mostly because I am not a Bridge Lady, but remember her rinsing out a coffee cup in the club’s kitchen with a wisp of hair on her head, bone thin and ribbing me with her signature humor. I recall being awestruck by her indomitable strength and wondered if I would have her perseverance under similar circumstances.
Looking back in my journal during that time, I recorded my uncertainty of what to do with Gabriela’s news about Lilian. The reason why her death was “scheduled” is because she chose to use an organization named Exit to legally assist her decision to end her life. By chance, a few months prior, I had purchased and watched a DVD documentary film about Exit and was familiar with how the process works. Physician-assisted suicide was not on Gabriela’s radar, so a scheduled death must have been shocking to her.
I’m not sure how the details worked for Lilian but essentially, she stayed in a medical intake unit or small hospital for a few days in advance of the date she would take her final dose of medicine to end her life. Her brother travelled into town from Australia to be with her. I remember from the documentary film that Exit has a small apartment available for people to complete the dying process. On Friday, she must have been transferred to the apartment where she would administer the medicine herself, accompanied by her brother and an attendant from Exit.
As the current club President (a volunteer position), I felt it was important to recognize Lilian’s decision and wish her well. What is the etiquette for wishing someone well on their self-administered death journey? There were no tips to be found and given the immediacy of the situation, I had to act quickly. Thanks to my journal entries, I can recreate the timeline which was as follows:
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
- Gabriella told me the news about Lilian.
- I sat with it and puzzled what can be done.
Wednesday, February 6
- I wrote a letter to Lilian
- I found out where she was staying, called them and asked if I could email a letter, have them print it out and hand it to Lilian so she could read it. They agreed and it was done.
- I felt good about the letter yet in reading my journal, I was uncertain if it was appropriate or if she would find it helpful. Again, there were no etiquette tips. Although I was uncertain, I did the best I could and erred on the side of love and generosity by getting the letter to her rather than the fear my small self was feeling.
Thursday, February 7
- I got together with a Geneva friend named Nancy, who has since died, and we sat in mediation for Lilian and did a blessing for her. It was potent and impactful.
- I heard from one of Lilian’s close friends that she received the letter and was very touched by it and appreciated it.
- Whew! I felt relieved.
Friday, February 8, 2008 at 2:00 pm
- Lilian took the medicine and made her transition.
- I was stationed at my favorite pine forest in the Jura mountains and did ritual and ceremony to send her off.
- From my journal: “I sensed that her spirit left her body like a cannon shot into the sky.”
- I felt enormous gratitude for being in the liminal space with Lilian who provided me with the lesson to trust my heart-centered guidance.
Who would think that a cantankerous Bridge Lady would be my angel and help me see myself more clearly? That was a long time ago but I feel her essence as I write and share this story. The space between living and dying is truly sacred and I can see now that Lilian’s presence in my life helped pave the way for becoming a Death Doula. Thank you, Lilian!
Here is a copy of the letter to Lilian which I preserved in my journal. My journal indicates I got it to her on February 7, 2008. I removed identifying information and gave it an electronic gold frame to honor it.