Life Before Death

I've been sitting on this one for a while, because it's about death and that can be hard to read about. But it's also about life and not just because death is part of life.

I saw a link on dooce a little while ago about a project called Life before Death. A German photographer named Walter Schels interviewed people who were dying and photographed them before and after death. If you follow the link, you will see a series of photographs with accompanying stories of the person in the photograph. The Guardian, on whose site Life before Death appears, calls them sombre, but I don't agree. I think they are beautiful.

I was 12 years old the first time I saw a dead person. It was my farmor (father’s mother) and the night before, I had woken up a little past three in the morning, crying inconsolably. In the morning, the hospital called to tell us that she had died a little past three in the morning and I was not surprised at all. My mother wanted to go say goodbye and I came with her. I remember to this day going into a room with nothing but a bed in which lay my farmor, wrapped up in a white sheet, only her face visible, a length of gauze wrapped around her jaw to keep it in place and tied in a jaunty knot on top of her head. I remember white walls, the metal of the bed and the radiator and a lot of light. I also remember seeing my mother bend to kiss my farmor, but that was a little too much for me, so I just stood next to the bed and said my goodbye.

Twenty-seven years later, in another country on another continent, we sat by my father's bed as he died. Death can be a long and very active process and it took him a week to get there. I was privileged to be next to him, talking him over as he left. It was the singularly most beautiful moment of my life. I can still remember the way he looked as we continued to sit by his bed for several hours, until we were ready to let him go - the way he looked like my dad, yet not my dad, the absence of something indefinable, yet the peace, overwhelming peace in that room.

Looking at the photographs in Schels’ project, I was again struck by the beauty and peace of death and I remembered my father, not just in death, but in life. Of course, I think of him every day and miss him very much – particularly in the 3 months between the anniversary of his death in March and his birthday in June, the missing is so very big. But these photographs reminded me of the beauty in his death, the awe I felt when he allowed me to witness the moment that he left this world. That memory was a gift, the Life before Death project is another. It gave me peace and stillness within and helped me to remember his smile, his laugh and his hands on my shoulders.

If you are missing someone, may it do the same for you.

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