E39: On Death and Dying with Nicholas Goodman
Nicholas Goodman talks about his experience working in a hospice and how he has learnt to sit with death and dying. Death and dying are very taboo subjects in the western world, keeping death and the process hidden from view, as per the norms in western medicine. Comparing this with Eastern beliefs that grieve and mourn widely in public, we can see why so many of us in North America are afraid to die. In this conversation, we talk about processing the death and dying of our family and loved ones and the impact that this grieving process has on us.
TODAY'S GUEST: NICHOLAS GOODMAN
> Nicholas's childhood story (02:56)
> Why people don't acknowledge that death is a part of life? And what are the common curiosities that people have related to death? (05:05)
> Is there life after death? Nicholas shares his perspective (13:14)
> Besides death what are other fears that people who are in hospice have? (23:19)
> Why people at the end of their life crave physical touch? And how this can help them feel better mentally? (45:40)
E039: On Death and Dying with Nicholas Goodman
Death and dying is part of life. We don’t get out of life alive.
On this episode of What We’re Not Talking About, we’re talking about an extremely relevant topic that most of us will experience multiple times over the course of our lives.
And that topic is dying. Today we're talking about death and dying, grief and bereavement.
I sat down with hospice worker Nicholas Goodman who has a beautiful perspective and learned understanding of what people at the end of their life experience, go through, and crave from their loved ones as they transition into whatever comes after this life.
Today is a few days after what would have been my father’s birthday. It’s also the day following my second father’s, who was actually my best friend’s father, birthday, as well as death day. February marks, for me, death.
And although it is dreary for some and catastrophic for others, learning to process death in a way that is healthy is something that can set you free from so much regret in this life. This episode is incredibly special to me, and I hope that you can find some grace with death and dying through this conversation.
Amy: [00:02:02] Welcome back to this area episode of What We're Not Talking About today. I have with me Nicholas Goodman, who is an author, massage therapist, addiction counselor, and hospice worker. Welcome to the show.
Nicholas: [00:00:17] Thanks, Amy. Thanks for asking me to join you today.
Amy: [00:00:20] Yeah.
I'm excited for us to talk about wherever this kind of conversation leads us about death and dying or anything else.
Sometimes I start with a topic or a very specific viewpoint. Sometimes I'm just like, “Let's show up and see what happens.” So, I feel like we're going to do a little bit of both on this one. So, let's jump in.
Nick, tell me and the listeners a little bit about you, a little bit about your childhood, and what led you down the career path that you find yourself in right now?
Nicholas: [00:02:50] Okay. Thanks.
It's definitely been an unorthodox journey, and I'm sure many people can say that. But my childhood was sickeningly plain. At around 11, 12 years old, I rebelled against that, I turned to class clown/mischievous behavior, which was the beginning of a downward spiral. I got involved with drugs and alcohol and a destructive lifestyle, which I didn't emerge from until my mid twenties.
Had to go to treatment, cleaned up. And that's where I say I received my PhD before stepping into a classroom. I cleaned up, went back to school for addiction counseling, and worked in the field as an addiction counselor for several years. It was there that I recognized the correlation between grief and bereavement, love and loss, stuff like that with addictions.
I went back to university to study thanatology, which is death and dying, grief and bereavement, while simultaneously pursuing studies in gestalt psychotherapy.
When I was doing my internship at hospice, that's where I found another calling.
While I was there, I was doing emotional, spiritual counseling, but also therapeutic touch, Reiki, stuff like that. And that's where I saw the influence of physical contact with those who were dying. So, I wanted to study massage. That's how I ended up studying massage therapy, by recognizing the need for holistic treatment for the mind, body, and soul. And to honor all the aspects of the clients that I was working with.
That’s it in a nutshell.
Amy: [00:04:30] That's beautiful. And I'm actually very excited to talk to you about the end of life care, which you are obviously an expert in. Because that's something that we are not great at addressing as a society. But then, because we’re not good with talking about death and dying on the whole, individually it can be quite a hard topic. Or even worse for some people that just can't acknowledge that we all die.
Nicholas: [00:05:04] Oh, I know. It's such a negated element of conversation and it comes up. Honestly, when I see clients, not even hospice clients, but let's just say an everyday massage client or a counseling client. They'll say, “I feel morbid talking about this. I feel strange talking about death. It's dark.” I don't share their sentiment, but I recognize at the same time, there are a lot of people who shy away from their mortality.
It takes a little bit of coaxing, a little bit of encouragement, to have people open up about their fears, their worries, even their curiosity about death and dying.
And I think that's a great place to start. When I talk to people and they open up about, you know, whether it's a loved one dying, or let's say them, let's say a hospice client.
I treat it as if someone would treat speaking to a woman who's expecting. You know, “What do you think it will be like? What are your fears? Also, what do you think is waiting after this transition?” Just to really coax them into viewing it as a parallel to birth. I think that's the greatest way to go at it, is from that gentle standpoint instead of death and dying, doom, and gloom.
No, let's look at it as a transition. Tell me your curiosities and your wonder that surrounds it.
Amy: [00:06:22] And that's a lovely way to think about it and have that perspective. Death is one of the only things that we don't know for sure. Yes. There have been people who have died and then resuscitated and they have these stories of a white light. And there's also the more extreme versions of meeting with whomever they have met with in the in-between of leaving the body and actually dying.
And really, I have dove deep into this literature on this topic, as well as the philosophy and mentality and an individual standpoint, as well as a whole. In this last year, I had two very close deaths happen to me. One was my father, in which I was...
At the time, I didn't view it like this, but now I'm very thankful that I was with him when he died.
He died quite suddenly. He died outside in a subdivision. So, he wasn't in a hospital or anything like that. And then I also dealt with the death of my aunt who was incredibly sick and was someone who... Like my other aunt, her sister has been very… They just pretended that it was never going to happen.
So, they don't talk about it. They don't acknowledge it. And I'm the opposite. I talk very openly about it. I'm someone that likes to process in community, in relationship, and then also philosophize about it as well. Because we don't know what's going on.
You mentioned how you flip the switch when you ask, “Well, what curiosities do you have about death and dying?” What do you find are central themes to that? Or is it something all over the place when it comes to the individuals that you help?
Nicholas: [00:08:29] I think in all honesty, it often regards an afterlife. There is attachment to the physical body, and throughout history there's always been that fear around the physical body. I mean, even tracing it back to the epic Greek sagas of the Iliad and in that, all the effort that was put into receiving Hector's body.
And I think that still goes today, is that we need proper funerary rights. And we do worry about the physical body after death. But then the dying process, all the losses that accumulate begin to stack up before we even die.
I mean, in your father's case, it sounds like it was sudden, you didn't know.
So, there's a different thing that goes with that. But when we have a gradual decline, you hear a lot of, with the curiosities of, “Will it hurt? Will I be able to breathe?” That's a huge one. A lot of people have fear around, “Will my breath escape me? Will I be struggling in that sense?”
But beyond that, the curiosity really stems more to an afterlife. So many people go there. Even beyond our death and dying denying society, most people seem to be open to explore the possibility of rebirth or having or nothingness if you will. So I think that's the common themes
Amy: [00:09:46] Now for yourself. What's your curiosity?
Nicholas: [00:09:51] My curiosity is… I'm definitely very open-minded to the spiritual paths. I'm like you, so I take the stance of, “I don't know what awaits, but I will say I do know something awaits.” I spent a lot of time investigating it in meditation and contemplation through literature.
But I think the greatest source that I've read from for my own curiosity is from nature itself, to observe the cycles of the rising and fall of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides.
And to recognize that it seems illogical for, you know, “I die. That's the end, Nick is the... That's it. Nick is gone. Everything that I was is gone.”
I think that if I can take a lesson from nature, it's that there's a period of quietude, of silence, and then something that precedes it. That's what I've drawn. I would lean more towards curiosity towards rebirth, and maybe there is a heaven. Through the wintering of our soul after death and dying, if you will. If that makes sense.
Amy: [00:09:12] Yes, absolutely. I'm a big, like, I'm very big into Ram Dass and all the little avenues that come out from reading his books and listening to his lectures and talks. And I, like him and you, believe that nature is very telling to the cycles that we go through. The way that we perceive death is that it's almost finite sometimes.
It's like, you know, this happens and then that's it. But because we don't know, and we most likely will never be able to actually know it's, it’s very fascinating to me to talk to individuals about this as well. Because of the different mentalities and viewpoints that so many people have. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the psychedelic aspect of death and dying when it comes to the Tibetan book of the Dead or anything like that.
But Timothy Leary, he is another one of the psychedelic Renaissance grandfathers.
Well, I don't know his actual title. It's funny because he, and I found this fascinating, dedicated his whole life, more or less, to discovering this. And at the end of his life, he was like, “No, we just die. And that's it.”
I was just like, could you imagine educating everything like your whole life to try and figure it out and just coming up with that very simple, ‘Yep. This is the situation.’
Nicholas: [00:12:36] Oh, goodness. Maybe he just did it to toy with all of our fears or something. I don't know.
Amy: [00:12:42] I mean, it's possible. He got quite sick too, so I do think that... And I've had this experience with myself, where we're very tight on an idea or ideology related to death and dying or not. Then something happens and then we become jaded or we become disheartened. And it's much easier to just go with something that other people agree with. Because you have that comfort of other people being like, “Yeah, you're right.” You know?
Nicholas: [00:13:12] So, kind of like the validation through the mask cause other people believe it?
Amy: [00:13:16] Yes. Yes. Exactly, yeah.
Nicholas: [00:13:18] You would go back to that instead of your individual standpoint?
Amy: [00:13:21] Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Nicholas: [00:13:23] Yeah, I don't know.
The more I've investigated life, death and dying, the divine, everything, the more I go back to Socrates' whole view of, “I know nothing.”
I keep my mind open with wonder, instead of close with belief. So, that's not to say that I won't on certain days go, “There's not a damn thing out there. Where are you, God, great spirit? Whatever we want to call Him or they. And I question my faith. But I think that has a point. Like you said... Did you say Timothy Leary?
Amy: [00:13:56] Yes.
Nicholas: [00:13:58] So with him, I think it has a point that faith and doubt are so intricately connected that the most terrifying thing is meeting somebody who just has faith and that's it.
I’m really good friends with a minister. We meet once a month. I'm not a Christian, but he is, and we leave our beliefs at the door and just say, “Let us entertain the idea of the other person's beliefs wholeheartedly. We can always pick them up when we walk back out the door. But let's even contemplate for a moment that there is no God, that there is no heaven, and let's stare into the dark oblivion of death and dying and play with our fears.”
And then inevitably, after my humanness, if you will, I find I often return to my beliefs in something more and my something more isn't that profound. It’s like observing nature, it's more of a humbling element of, I am alive. I am not separate from everything else that is alive. I have just as much sacredness in me as just the blade of grass. And beyond this human hubris is a oneness of life that unites us all. Whether we choose to call that God great spirit, the creator or, or any other name, it unites us all.
Nick cannot officially die. Amy can not officially die.
I think we will just return to this is oneness. And maybe that is heaven. Maybe that is heaven, the disintegration of boundary and separation between self and other.
And definitely, working with people who are dying, I've seen stout atheists where they've seen Christ and the other way around. I've sat with Christians who for their whole life believed in eternal bliss and the next thing they say, “I don't see anything in God. Where are you?”
And I believe that even Christ himself on the cross questioned God, “Where are you now through my suffering?” We should all remember that we are human and we suffer and whatever divine being, if any, should be open to questioning and to our doubts.
Amy: [00:16:11] Yes. I actually saw a quote earlier today that really reminds me of what you just said. It was said something along the lines of like “gods are just immortal men and men are just mortal gods.” And I thought that was so beautiful and telling, to my belief system anyways, because I believe energy never dies. I mean, so do so many scientists.
So, just to quote some facts. To me, it's like, how can... Maybe me as in Amy the identity is gone, but the energy within that creates that identity doesn't ever fully die.
Nicholas: [00:16:56] Gotcha. No, I share your sentiments. I think I remember my son. Of course, I've raised my children pretty philosophically.
They question a lot of things, which is a blessing and a curse.
Amy: [00:17:09] Of course. Yeah.
Nicholas: [00:17:10] I don't have the answers for most of them. But I was driving with my son and he was probably six at the time, and he's looking out the window at a weed field and he said, “What do you think happens when you die?”
I've always taken the standpoint of, “I don't know.” Then I propose ideas to them and see what speaks to them to give them that autonomy to discover. But I said, “I'll tell you what I think.”
So, I led him through it and I said, “Okay, let's just say a bird dies in that field. When the bird dies, what happens?” And he said, “Well, it rots.” And I said, “Yeah.” Then he said, “And then what?”
I answered, “Then the rains wash it into the soil. It becomes wheat. Now, when the other birds eat this wheat, it flies again with the birds.” And he understood in that moment, the profound truth of, let's just say spirit.
Everything else aside, on a molecular level there is rebirth. In my book “A Moment With Grace,” there's a profound realization for myself when I was writing it. As I'm laying there and facing death and dying, I say, “Life was nevermind to begin with. I simply borrowed it from the earth.”
And that is what I believe is that this life force, this giving energy, is the one that's... And it is the earth, it's the universe, it's the cosmos, all-in-one, this creative element. That's what I believe around it.
My son, on his own realization and a little bit of guidance came to that simple realization that we will just change.
I don't know about the transmigration of the soul. That's the whole other topic. But I know that Nick's physical body will inevitably, if I'm buried under a tree, turn into the bark, turn into the berries, turn into that, and then the other countless things that carry it on.
If people can stop and have the realization that life is catabolic... before a meal, if we can sit there and say grace and recognize all the spices, all the herbs, all the vegetables, animals, all of these things that gave up their life in a sacrificial manner so that you could carry on. Then when it is your time to return to the earth, maybe we would do so with a lot more humility.
Amy: [00:19:26] Yes. That'd be nice. Wouldn't it? If we could, it'd be-
Nicholas: [00:19:31] All the pissing and moaning that I will do on my desk.
Amy: [00:19:36] Yeah. It's so interesting, this topic is something that I just have sat with for... I mean, before the theme of death and dying perpetuated my life and for this last year, it was something that I was always very scared of. Because it was, in my eyes, the one unknown, and ego loves to grab onto quote, unquote, finite facts.
Even though, then we have another discussion to go into, but we won't.
It's freeing almost to be able to view death in this way, because it's not as scary.
It's not just, it ends. Sure, our brain's not there in the way that we want it to be. The identity, the knowledge that we accumulated over our lifespan is gone. Or is it? Maybe it’s not.
But, it's been a really beautiful transition in my mindset for me. I truly believe that it was one thing that helped me overcome this year in a way that previous Amy would have not been able to overcome. Yes. Sorry?
Nicholas: [00:20:50] No, that is the part.
I find it difficult to connect with people who are… How can I put it? Are so engrossed in the spiritual world that they're no longer down here with us humans, if you will. Because I can tell you when, whenever I have sat with someone who's facing death and dying, I've often felt that fear of recognizing my time we will come and I will stand there. And no matter what, I don't know how much, I think we can prepare for it.
But either way, there's always something left to be lived. There always is. If someone's in hospice and they just want to hang on for the extra week to see their child graduate, or they want, there's always something.
If we can, if we've lived a great life, there's always something to live for.
So, to let go of that is difficult for anybody. The Buddha himself on his deathbed said to his disciples “Life is so sweet. I wish that I could only live for another hundred years.’ So, if this man, the awakened one would come to that realization... I think we all, if we've lived our life right, we'll see it that way. That this is a beautiful life and I've lived a great life, but sadly, it's coming to an end and there's a lament to come with that.
Amy: [00:22:10] Yeah. And that's hard to, not acknowledge it, but to be able to sit with it in a way where fear isn't surrounding it. It might not be a hundred percent, but like for me, I've intellectually and spiritually... All the things have what I believe to have formed an idea that works for me. But when it comes down to it, I imagine that be like, “Oh no. Let's stop.”
Or maybe I won't, who knows? I mean, I'm just assuming where I'm at right now. But that's how it will be. I think for me also, it will greatly depend on age. Which is ironic because we have the spiritual belief of age. Then there’s me being like, “Well, if it's young…”
What, in your experience, when dealing with people that are in hospice, when it comes, outside of death and dying, is there any fear?
Well, sorry, not outside of death.
But is there any fear that shows up regularly that doesn't have to do with the actual physical death of dying?
Nicholas: [00:23:21] Oh yeah, lots. If I was to look at a correlation, a lot has to do with unfinished business with people in our lives. It always comes back to that. To some degree, being able to find an estranged child or or even unfinished business with someone who may not be available anymore, someone they can't speak to, and they want to.
I worked with one hospice client and he was uncertain if their childhood friend was alive. They had lost contact. They had a falling out and it was something that always preyed on him. So, he wrote letters and sealed them all with the hopes that one day the friend would receive them. He gave them to his wife and he had them all organized.
I'm not sure, I haven't been in contact with his wife, but I'd like to think that those letters found their way. So, the possibility of, I don't want to say closure, but just wrapping things up in a pretty bow, if you will-
Amy: [00:24:17] Yes.
Nicholas: [00:24:19] - Before we cross over, that's a common thing. As long as there's breath in our lungs I think people recognize there is work to do. And by work, I mean expressing love, reconciliation, something of that sort. I've seen a lot of people go through that when facing death and dying.
And I bet that probably helps - I'm going to use this word, but this might not be the appropriate word - but restore faith in humanity for you as well.
Because if we're at the end of our life and we're in our deathbed or on our deathbed and that's what we're preoccupied with, mending all the wrongdoings. To me that shows that we are inherently good people.
Nicholas: [00:25:04] I think so.
I've met some defeated people in hospice who the pain and the suffering has just sapped their spirit, if you will. And that's heartbreaking.
People who are ready to cross over and die, but it's certainly not with grace. It's more with this melancholic resignation, if you will. And that's sad.
So for myself, I think it complements my life beyond the fear it evokes at times when I'm sitting in the presence of death and dying, recognizing that one day Death will be sitting at my bed. Living my life with that recognition of, let's say, I don't want to be a person who's lying there dying in a car accident or something going, “I wish I told my daughter I loved her. Or I wish I didn't say this to my mother.”
So, I think it grants a perspective. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, he has a rather controversial statement in his book “Discourses.”
And he says “Tonight, when I kiss my son goodnight, I'll say to myself, ‘He could be dead in the morning.’”
And some people look at that and go, “That is just disgusting.” But, I view it as when I've done that with my own children and said that to myself, I feel that kiss. I'm fully present and I'm cherishing it just right at that moment.
That is what working in hospice does to me. I recognize things like if this is the last time that I was to see my friend, how much warmer would I hug them? How much deeper would I look into their eyes? And that is the complement of living life with a daily evaluation of our mortality, if you will. A daily recognition of it.
So, yeah, it's definitely complimented me, all of these clients that I've met. That seems to be a common theme that they would tell me too. “Go home.”
It's the little things that we take for granted. Death comes in many ways as you found out in this last year, especially. It can come in one fell swoop, and next thing you're gone. Or it can be a gradual descent into death and dying. And with those people, it's the little things along the way they lose. That we may learn to appreciate more if we recognize it.
Such as having the ability to walk into our kitchen to make a cup of coffee. And just in that sentence, the ability to walk into our kitchen and make coffee. If you're in hospice, those things are just a melancholic yearning, a nostalgia of what used to be.
So, when we do that, it's almost like a Buddhist standpoint of “cherish that.”
As you're holding your favorite cup of coffee, feel it in your hand, smell it, breathe it in.
Amy: [00:27:01] That's so telling. To talk a little bit about what you've said with kissing your son at night... And the... I can never pronounce. In fairness, I didn't think that's how it was pronounced. So, now I feel like his... Because I know what philosophy you're talking about, but I've always pronounced differently. I'm not going to say it. So, that person.
In my experience, I, with my father... It was sudden, but he was a very sick person. He was still living on his own and was still pretty capable, he could drive and go grocery shopping. But he had a long history of... He became obese during my childhood years. He went from just like slightly overweight to like clinically morbidly obese.
And then with that came a series of, not to be rude towards my dead father, but disgusting ailments that accompanied what was going on with his inner being, if you will. He thought he was having a long-term anxiety attack and now we kind of view it as he was having a heart attack for a long period of time.
My parents were separated, or actually divorced, so he lived alone. Before his death and dying, I was in the middle of a huge argument with him that was spanning months. We have a really complicated past, there's a lot of drama, I'll use that word, between him and I.
I had this moment of like, “say I love you” on the last phone call I had with him.
I had been kind of mean to him and all this stuff, and I was just like, “Just say it.” And I was like, “No, no.” And I was like, “Just swallow your pride and say it.”
And I swear to you because I did that, that was something that I will always remember and always hold on to. To be like, you knew somewhere inside your head that this was going to happen and you put down your defense mechanisms of being angry or whatever it was to tell him that you loved him. So I’m glad I did that before I dealt with his death and dying in front of me.
Nicholas: [00:30:04] That’s beautiful
Amy: [00:30:06] Yeah, it is so beautiful. As I kind of am tearing up right now. I will also say my father's death anniversary comes up in three days, so like I'm a little bit of a mess sometimes.
Nicholas: [00:30:15] It’s a great time to have this conversation.
Amy: [00:30:16] Yes, exactly. And this is actually going to go live like two days after his birthday, so, you know, another on-purpose as well.
But yeah, I think you hear these stories from people and people are listening. I've never experienced it and it may be falling on deaf ears as well. But you don't really understand the impact of those simple actions, for both the person that is dying, or has died, as well as yourself.
Because, as you said, you have these regrets, but those regrets can transfer to the people that are grieving the death of a loved one as well.
Nicholas: [00:30:53] That's great that you had that intuitive nudge and you followed it beyond your own resistance to tell him that you love him. And that that definitely does speak to the closure that people find. There's very little consolation in death and dying.
We do find it. And I think that's what keeps us going along. When, all of a sudden, you said, “I love you.” That is a form of consolation. Had you not done that, I'm sure your grief would weigh a little heavier than it does now.
Amy: [00:31:25] Yes, absolutely.
And to shed some more light, I was very into metaphysics, the spirituality aspect of life before this. But his death solidified that. Without going, I could talk for hours about this, but to do it in a succinct way, the day that he died, he called me.
He said, “I'm having an anxiety attack. I'm in the middle of my subdivision. I need you to come and get me and drive the car back home because I cannot drive.” I mean, it wasn't that... You couldn't really understand that's what he was saying, but that's essentially what he was saying.
I remember saying, “Do you need me to call 911? Maybe we should do this.” He was very scared of doctors. So, he was always like, “No, no, no.” So, I didn't. Ironically, I listened to him for once in my life. But what happened when I arrived, he quickly deteriorated.
Which I'm sure is a common theme that you've seen, whereas once they held on until a certain point, they feel like they can let go.
So, we're in the middle of his subdivision on the side of the road, and the first person to stop was an off-duty firefighter who had protective gear to be able to give him CPR and mouth-to-mouth. The second person to stop was his best friend who did not live in the subdivision, and have no idea why he was in that subdivision, with his stepson, who was also almost like a son to my father.
I'm an only child, so. Then the third person to stop was a person that he knew, who he was friendly with that basically sold him the property that he lived on now. it was so random and just in the succession. And my father, because of his sickness and because of a lot of his mental health problems, had a very small circle of friends. So, essentially 70% of his loved ones were with him when he died and-
Nicholas: [00:33:31] Just like that.
Amy: [00:33:32] Just like that. And it was one of the most insane moments of my life. Because I was like, “You know, I don't believe in coincidence, and this is one large coincidence happening right now.” You know?
And my dog was with me, too, at his death and dying. So, that made it like a little bit... He had even someone else. But yeah, those experiences... I know I am, I don't want to say I'm lucky, but I do have a lot of gratitude because so many people don't get that closure. So many people don't get that grace in the process.
I always viewed it as something so profound.
I still view it as something so profound in a way that I was just like, “Tell me there's not something greater going on right now.” You know?
Nicholas: [00:34:21] Yeah, it was certainly reassuring.
Amy: [00:34:22] Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. But it's so fascinating for me to talk to people that have these beliefs on death that have never really experienced it in a close-up way with close loved ones. Or have not worked with them as well, because I do believe that that's another element of it.
Now you mentioned earlier a lot about their melancholic viewpoints as they die. Would you say there's more regret or less regret with the people that you help transition?
Nicholas: [00:34:59] It's often said how we live is how we will die. Taking that phrase to mind, it would imply that if we lived our life rather regret-free, and not in a careless way, but I mean telling people we love them, being present for people, stuff like that, giving back. Then when it's time to die, we will most likely meet it with grace.
But if someone has lived their life creating regrets, feeling guilt, feeling shame, they will most likely have that during their death and dying. It comes down to really how we live. And, I don't know. I remember I had a really good friend who passed away a few months ago.
He was he was my music teacher and he was an atheist, hardcore atheist.
So, it was funny that we were such good friends. His wife had died 10 years before, and he never recovered. She was the joy in his life, she was just everything to him. As he was approaching death, he started to entertain spirituality and she became, in a sense, his spirituality. he found some comfort believing that they would be reunited.
When I met him previously, he didn't have that. He thought this was nothingness. This is nothing. But I have to tell you for an atheist, a former atheist, there's only been two people in my life that have looked into the eyes of death with no fear, and he was one of them. So, it was interesting for me.
It also reiterated my own courage in looking at my own death and dying, seeing him so calm, so stoic, and so welcoming. He was more curious about his death, because he believed on some level he would see his wife. That in itself led him through that darkness. He left with some unfinished business because nothing can ever be wrapped up completely perfect. But he managed to find spirituality at the end, he found comfort.
He wrapped up what he could, and then he thought the rest would be taken care of after death. He thought he'd be back in his beloved's arms. It was nice to see.
Amy: [00:37:15] Yeah, that would be. That'd be beautiful. Do you believe the same thing? Do you think that you will be reunited with your beloved when you pass? Well, I mean, if you were to pass first. Obviously, there'll be some time to wait.
But if that was the end result, what's your belief there? Or do you have one?
Nicholas: [00:37:35] I don't really have a solidified belief around that. I'd have to say that I believe that we returned to some oneness. And I think that that separation isn't necessary in death and dying. I think that when we die, we return to the source, if you will. Into that other realm, I don't know if there's spirits waiting
But I will say that in my hospice work, I had one client and he had a brain tumor and we were really close. We bonded beautifully. We'd go fishing. And I hate fishing. I suck at it, but I'd go anyways, just for the time. We'd sit there and talk about matters of the heart. He was supposed to live for probably six months and he died suddenly.
His wife called me and said he died last night. He had a seizure and died. And I cried and I felt that the moments we shared, I still was hoping to see him through, if you will. To have it wrapped up a little more beautifully. Then I was sleeping one night and in my dream, so lucidly, so vividly, he came to me with his wife and we both cried and hugged him. He thanked me and then he left.
I've had experiences like that, where someone might chalk it off and go, “That's a Freudian thing, an unfulfilled wish you're living out.” No, there was no doubt.
I could feel his presence and I know he was there and it's something that I will always remember.
So, I think that as he crossed over, I don't know, because his wife wasn't dead, but her spirit was there. So, I think on some level we're always connected to the source.
Amy: [00:39:08] Absolutely. I mean, I believe that we can operate on different planes as well. We're not just in this 3D reality, we're also in other areas. That goes well with my belief system, so I hear that. I'm just like, “Yeah, I understand.”
The one theme that - I mean, I wasn't really guessing - but I guess I'm a little surprised that I hear through what we're talking about, which warms my heart, is that you have become quite close with a lot of the individuals that you help transition into their end of life. Which obviously now that I'm thinking about it makes perfect sense.
When it comes to grieving death and dying, how is that for you? What grieving process do you have? Do you have a specific, I don't want to say regimen, but for the sake of this conversation, I'll say that, that you go through when you do experience loss?
Nicholas: [00:40:02] I believe strongly in prayer and I believe strongly in ceremony. There's a lot of debate and a lot of opinions on how close you should get to a hospice client and an addiction client that I've worked with. I believe in showing up wholeheartedly, not sympathetically or anything like that.
I'm not here to save them, but to show up and connect on that deep of a level so that I can grieve.
I think that if someone is doing deep, emotional work with another person, that if when the person dies they aren't heartbroken to some degree, I think that they didn't completely show up. There's been some losses that rattled me to my core, and I need to take a few days and compose myself with lots of ceremony, prayer, and meditation. Revisiting times we had. Stuff like that, just grieving and mourning. But other ones have just left with such grace that...
Like my friend who died, there wasn't a lot of sadness. It was, “This is beautiful.” And this man has stepped into the other side with such courage that I can only admire him.
The ones that have really taken me off was I worked for five years in addiction centers and I've stayed close with a lot of clients just through Facebook. I believe in, you know, seeing them out through their journey. I don't like it to end. And it does end sometimes, if I don't have the luxury of finding out what happened to someone or in some way having an email or something.
Certain clients will tell me about so-and-so passing. And some of them it's like getting punched in the gut, you know, a young aspiring man with children sometimes. All of a sudden, it's like so-and-so died and it just tears my heart out. And I need to remember to not personalize. I know I did my part and I did all that I could. So, in no way do I have regret over not helping them with their death and dying.
It's more of, I saw the potential and I saw the kind caring heart and I connected to it.
And it's a tragedy that they are a casualty in the fight against addiction. So, to move a little bit away from hospice and the addiction work, I think there, it might've beat me more. In hospice, it was, you were looking into the finality of death and dying. With addiction, it was the possibility of life.
Amy: [00:42:25] Mm. Yes. Yes. Those are very different. Yeah. I never really thought of it like that. Those would be very like opposite spectrum types of help. Wouldn't it?
Nicholas: [00:42:37] People often ask me, “What's harder? Addiction or hospice work?”
Hospice work is. I love it because people are hungry for connection, for purpose, to examine meaning, to have soulful exchanges. Where a lot of addicts are thrawing out and they're going, “Fuck you.” And the court sent me here and stuff like that.
Amy: [00:43:00] Yeah.
Nicholas: [00:43:01] It's a totally different resistance that you're meeting. Where, a lot of hospice clients are just so welcoming and just welcome you in. Hospice care and end of life care, if we could understand something that I think is essential, that people understand in case someone is going through it that they know, is their needs are basically the same as yours and mine are when we're in health.
They're only accentuated because they're at the mercy of other people. So, in other words, we all need connection. We all need meaning. And, if I want to connect with someone right now, I can probably call a friend up, I can go meet them, and I can go have coffee with them.
Where someone in hospice is at the mercy of someone else's grace.
So, I think that's what we need to remember is the needs are always there. It's just all of a sudden we may not be able to go and obtain them. We might not have the strength.
So, sitting there with somebody. Let's say they're no longer coherent. I believe that they can still feel you. And they can't say, “Hey, come here,” on a conscious level. I believe spiritually, maybe. But you know, all of a sudden to go, and let's say your grandmother's dying, and to recognize that this is an act of your grace.
And I think the beauty with that is I went to my friend's mother’s Jewish funeral. I just wanted to attend to support him, but also to see as the Jewish tradition has such deep mourning rites.
I remember we all filled the grave in and they said, “This is considered the final mitzvah.” I hope that's what it's called. That's what I've remembered it as. And it's where everybody takes a shovel to fill on the grave and they view it as a mitzvah, as a selfless act that can never be repaid by the recipient.
If we look at hospice work, it's more or less like that. If I go and sit with them, They can't really pay me back in this lifetime. I'm doing it out of my grace and my caring. Yes. I might get some little things, but ultimately it is a final mitzvah, like filling in someone's grave after death and dying.
Amy: [00:45:10] Yeah.
Now, before we end, I do want to go back to something that you said at the very beginning.
I think it would be really cool to hear how you discovered this. But you said that through your hospice work, you realize that physical touch is something that is craved by the individuals at the end of life, when they are facing death and dying.
Now, how did you come to that understanding and how has that impacted your work as a hospice worker now?
Nicholas: [00:45:40] So, the realization was in the beginning, I think there is a simple story that I'll say. There was a woman in the hospice waiting room and she was weeping. Her mother was dying and she wasn't conscious. And I sat with her and talked with her and she said the worst part, she knew her mother was going to die.
She was at terms with it. It was that she was in pain. So, I asked her if she'd be comfortable with me doing a simple therapeutic touch and Reiki, and she agreed. We went in the room and I approached cautiously. I did a scalp massage and some Reiki.
As I went to walk away and her daughter was crying. I asked how she was doing and she pointed at her mom and she said, “She's smiling. She hasn't smiled in two weeks.”
Beyond the skepticism that goes with Reiki and therapeutic touch in certain modalities from the scientific world, there is a realization that in that moment that her mother found joy, comfort, and love through my touch. And that in itself is the magic.
Amy: [00:46:422] Yes. I think that's so beautiful, the smile. Because that's something that, again, I never really thought about when it came to if they are incoherent at the end of life, can they still make facial expressions? But I guess the answer is yes.
Nicholas: [00:47:01] Sometimes, sometimes not. It's such an individual-
Amy: [00:47:05] Okay.
Nicholas: [00:47:06] Moment to moment change, if you will. Some people will wake up with lucidity at points. Some people just slip away. There's other points where somebody's spirit, if you will, vacates before they're dead and it's tangible. I've heard people say that, and I’ve felt that. If you go in the room and their body is there, but their spirit is gone.
I had a client who - not a hospice client, a massage client - told me when her father was dying, she went in to see him and she could feel his warmth. And the following day, she came back in his warmth from his spirit was gone. She said in that moment she knew that he was just hooked up to these machines, but he was gone. She didn't even stick around to the moment of death because she realized he had vacated that physical body days before.
Amy: [00:47:55] Wow. That's powerful though, because it would take... I don't care who you are, that would take a really strong conviction to be able to do that. But it's obvious, to me anyways, that she was right in that sense. Because as you said.
I'm very good at feeling energy, very good at it.
And I wonder, or not wonder, but I imagine that I would probably do the same. My grandmother died about 10 years ago. She had severe dementia. I remember going to her, seeing her, and being like, “But she's not there. Who I know she is, who everybody else knows who she is. She's just, as you said, like her body.”
To me that was harder than anything, actually. Because I was just like, “We're just keeping her alive for what purpose?”
Well, Nick, this has been wonderful. I always think that I'm going to not have anything to say. I'm always wrong. Yes.
Well, thank you so much for speaking with me and for the listeners to hear your experience with death and dying and what you've learned. For everyone that wants to connect with Nicholas, you can do so by going to the show notes in the description. There you’ll find all his links. Everything that you need to find him, you will be able to do that on that webpage.
Now, I always ask the experts to leave the audience with some words of wisdom. I'm going to narrow it down a little bit for this conversation. For everyone that is either experiencing death with a loved one, the end of life process, or people that are just blatantly terrified of the possibility of death for either for loved ones or for themselves, I ask this. What advice do you have for them to show up with grace in this process?
Nicholas: [00:50:11] To show up with grace with a dying relative or someone who's dying? You know, what's interesting is...
I think the best advice, and I can sum it up, but if you read my book, which is called “A Moment With Grace,” everything is in there.
Because it's an investigation of life and death. Love. It's the pursuit of love.
It was a journal that I kept for 10 years that builds the foundation of it. And there's so much in that. So, in this moment just taking the words out of that, it is grace and you said it yourself and to deepen their understanding of what grace is.
To narrow it down to think about this grace is love. That's how I view it. It's love between creator and creation, it co-exists between everybody. It's seen in lucid moments. So, if you think about your father, let's say, I don't know your relationship, if he was present at your birth.
But if your father was present at your birth, he would have taken you in his hands.He would have embraced you and given you love. And then as he was dying, you held him in your hands and gave him the same. That is grace.