A little bird—likely a young thrush-- died in my hands this morning. I had heard a thud on the window looking out on our deck and saw her upside down on the ground, wings flapping, struggling to get up. When I picked her up she fit snugly into the palm of my hand. Her narrow beak, like tiny scissors, was moving, as if trying to say something as she lay on her side. Her eye looked up at me.
I hoped the bird was just stunned and that after some rest it would lift up and fly from my hand as if I were a modern-day St Francis of Assisi. Did she know I meant her no harm? Her legs twitched, but her head lay limply on the cushion of my hand. Her soft stomach pulsed against my palm with each slow effort of breath.
She was beautiful: light brown wing feathers streaked with blue, her tawny white and brown underbelly, a dapple of light blue feathering beneath each perfect eye. I sat on the deck in the morning sun, bird in hand, for perhaps five minutes while she gently struggled to rise.
As the bird lay there, eye watching me, beak opening and closing, I spoke to her. I told her how beautiful she was. I gently stroked her feathered back. I said she was safe in my hand. (Though this was not quite true: are we ever really safe from death?).
I tried to will her to fly away.
I had been rushing to get ready for the day when I heard her hit the window. Now, time seemed to matter less. She, too, had perhaps been rushing when she hit the window, the unseen instrument of her death. One minute you are flying, free and alive…then what you cannot see upends you. We mark time constantly in our days to reassure ourselves that we control our destiny, until, in an instant, we are out of time.
Get up, little bird, please. Fly away.
Then her eyes closed. Her beak opened in a final silent call, then shut. Then her breathing stopped.
The Quiet Presence of Death
How rarely we are in the quiet presence of death. So often in our lives dying is associated with violence and perhaps humiliation. We read in the papers constantly about murders, deadly accidents, and warfare. We shuffle the ordinary act of dying out of our awareness, to something that happens in a far away, unlucky place. Many of us go through our lives frightened of death, personifying it as something horrid, as a skeleton, as a black-hooded grim reaper, as a monster come to devour us.
Perhaps you cannot watch a living thing die without feeling a moment of closeness and connection, of shared vulnerability and fate. I have only witnessed close-up three other deaths besides the little thrush: two beloved pets and my father. Each of them was an intimate, loving moment, my father at age 89 most of all.
How We Die
My parents—married over fifty years-- spent the last year of their lives in an assisted living facility near my house. Soon after my mother died, my father wound up in the Emergency Room with a variety of ailments, from kidney failure to bronchitis. I expected a medical pronouncement about how long he had to live. Instead, the doctor leaned over my father’s bed and asked, “Louis, do you want to live or do you want to die? That’s what will determine if you recover.”
One day a few months later, my father began to talk mysteriously of strange things going on inside him. “I can’t describe it; things are changing inside me.“ I tried to piece out with him what he meant. His balky GI track? The maddening ringing in his ears? The bedsores that wouldn’t heal? A week before he died, he took my hand as I sat with him near his chair in the corner and said to me, “I’m losing it, I’m going.” I took his words only half- seriously, as we had been through such vague reports of symptoms before. Not sure what to say, I sat and held his hand. We watched TV. After years of wanting to talk to my father, I felt full and content-- in the past year we had talked about so much and made clear how much we loved each other.
One morning soon after that day I came in early to sit by his bedside. He had been sleeping more and more; we all knew something was up. I sat with him then, and. after a few minutes, my father leaned forward in bed toward me, eyes closed, felt for my hand, gave out a powerful exhalation close to a bellow, and died. I caught him as he fell sideways in his bed and held him in my arms.
It’s been over a decade since my father died and I have returned to that moment between us many times. My father gave me a final gift then, a chance to temper my fear of dying and to see it as a just a part of life, something that could be shared with another person, and nothing to be ashamed of. This was very different from how I had grown up thinking about death as something violent, scary, and a bit shameful.
The Paradox We Confront
Coming to know death as a shared part of life is perhaps a gift only someone who is dying can give to us. To receive this gift we must be willing to be stay close to those who are dying. This is the paradox: we need to open ourselves to something that we are trying to turn away from.
Mary Koopman is a Zen Buddhist priest and long time hospice RN. She observed to me that “in our culture death and dying have been for the most part institutionalized and taken from us. There are few who have the comfort level to be with the dying and their loved ones. This reinforces our fear and distance from the very experience that can free us. I do not wish to minimize the pain and loss that comes with losing someone we love. But these particular moments shared in our lives can be the most intimate and also bring us in contact with the mystery of life/death. This shared experience can go a long way to ease our grief.”
A Quiet Death?
Each of the four deaths I have (so far) witnessed in my life has been a quiet, loving one. The peacefulness of the dying contrasted with my fear of it. Perhaps that is something to be hoped for: a quiet death, amidst those who love us, so that we do not die alone. And perhaps in how we die we offer a final gift to those we love.
This morning, the little thrush’s body was still warm and soft as she lay dead in my hand. I stood up and took her body over to the edge of the forest bordering our house. I lay the little bird on the soft pine forest floor under some trees and then left.
Sam Osherson, PhD, is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA. He is a faculty member at the Stanley King Counseling Institute and a Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at the Fielding Graduate University. His most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.