“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” —Mary Oliver
By Cat Saunders
On Tuesday evening, April 11, 2006, at 9:45 p.m., Sally Giovine-Kerr took her last breath. Sally was the mother of my longtime partner, John Giovine, and she was also my friend. I called her my “mother-in-spirit” not only because she was John’s mother. I also called her that because she gave me unconditional maternal love in ways I’d never known before.
Sally had come back home on Friday April 7, following a brief hospitalization for evaluation. Sally had pulmonary fibrosis, along with other medical conditions. When she was discharged that Friday, Sally was aware—as were we—that she was coming home to die.
At that point, she was no longer eating or drinking. She was supported only by oxygen and by occasional moisture to her lips. Once Sally was back home, she was under the care of wonderful hospice workers, who visited daily and offered advice as needed.
With 24/7 support from family, friends, and neighbors, Sally surrendered to the “receiving” position with grace. She allowed us to give to her, just as she had so generously given to us over the years. She was 82.
During the course of her last five days, people came and went at all hours to Dolphin House (the family compound) on Portage Bay in Seattle. As usual, Dolphin House had its open-door policy. Sally was known for her willingness to “be there” for people any hour of the day or night. Occasionally we would shoo people out, so Sally could have a break from visitors. But for the most part, Sally remained available to everyone even during her dying process.
Sally was a big believer in inclusiveness. Family members and friends alike were welcome in her life no matter what, even during times of interpersonal conflict. For me personally, this was one of Sally’s greatest gifts to me as my “mother in spirit.”
Even if we were mad at each other over some silliness, I knew that Sally still loved and accepted me. This kind of unconditional love was new for me in family life, and it was precious beyond compare.
During Sally’s final days at home, there was music and storytelling, abundant affection, and plenty of food. Hey, it was the Giovine-Kerr clan after all! There was also a big homemade altar in the living room where Sally lay on her hospital bed.
The altar was a group endeavor created and recreated each day by those who came to visit. It had beautiful bouquets of flowers, personal mementos and old photographs, a blank book so people could write stories about Sally, and a big, bosomy, golden goddess statue presiding over all.
There was laughter and tears, lots of reminiscing between people who hadn’t seen each other in years. There was also a healthy dose of family politics—about this decision or that decision, this perception or that perception, this dynamic or that dynamic. It was just enough to remind us all that death inevitably brings up people’s “stuff” for the purpose of healing.
On the night of April 11, I finished up with my regular Tuesday evening counseling client a little after 9:30 p.m. Within ten minutes, John and I left our home in Wallingford to drive down to Dolphin House.
When we arrived a few minutes later and opened the door, candles were flickering and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We knew immediately that Sally had just died. People embraced John and me as we walked through the group of family and friends to see Sally. There were about 15 people there.
One of Sally’s closest friends, Ileen (whom John and I adore) said to me as we arrived, “That was fast! We just called you!” I said we hadn’t actually gotten the call yet—that we had just come. She nodded with a smile, “You knew.”
Because so many friends and family were present that night, John and I were curious to know who was “on shift” at Sally’s bedside when she died. It turned out to be one of her extended family “grandsons,” Jesse.
Jesse is one of three exceptional young men who are the sons of the aforementioned woman, Ileen. It may sound strange, but I think people choose—however consciously or unconsciously—whom they want present at their death.
As far as John and I were concerned, Sally could not have chosen better than to be with one of Ileen’s sons when she died. Like his brothers, Jesse is a gentle and compassionate man, and he had known Sally since he was born. Jesse considered it an honor to have held Sally’s hand as she drew her last breath.
John and I spent a lot of time with Sally that night, caressing her face, stroking her arms, and just hanging out with her. We’ve both been with many different people who have died. But it never ceases to amaze us how much it seems as if they could just open their eyes and start talking again. Death is so mysterious!
At some point, I asked John if he wanted me to check in shamanically to see if Sally’s spirit needed any help. He said yes, so I cradled her head in my hands from where I was sitting behind her. I closed my eyes and bowed my head close to hers on the bed.
Immediately my eyes felt hot and my breathing changed to a deep, slow rhythm. At some point, I was overcome with tears that began as a wave of grief and then turned quickly into a feeling of overwhelming ecstasy. I realized—once again—that death is awesome and mysterious and ultimately safe.
When I began tuning in at the spiritual level, I let the room and its inhabitants fade into the background. I saw that Sally’s spirit (however that may be conceived) was happy. I could see that she was suddenly able to understand, in death, what she could not understand in life.
Most importantly, I saw that she could finally understand why she had suffered the death of her husband (John’s father) who died at age 40. I also saw that she could finally understand why she had lost two daughters in childbirth (five sons survived). Finally, I saw that she even learned why she needed to hold on to her unfinished business about these terrible losses until she died.
I knew that Sally would have loved to hear about my experience of her after death. I like to think that somehow, in some way, she did know about it. Of course, I have no idea what “actually” happened during my spiritual work with her. I don’t presume that the messages I got were “true” or “right” or in any way the end of the story. I only know what I experienced, and I know it was a beautiful gift. That’s all.
When the waves of emotion finally emptied from my body, John brought me a box of Kleenex. I cleaned up my face, then John and I visited some more with the rest of the group.
I love that no one had interrupted my sacred time with Sally. As far as I could tell, no one seemed to think I’d been doing anything weird. I still have to pinch myself to know I’m not dreaming when I experience this kind of acceptance in a family.
A while later, Bob and John phoned hospice and the funeral home to let them know Sally had died. Bob told them that he would be keeping Sally’s body at home for a 24-hour wake. He wanted people to be able to come and go the next day to say goodbye to her one last time.
Once hospice was informed and the funeral home alerted, John and Bob agreed that one of them would call the funeral home the next night. After the 24-hour wake, one of them would call when it was time to have Sally’s body delivered to the funeral home for subsequent cremation. The funeral home would also take care of getting the death certificate signed by Sally’s doctor before it was filed with the county.
Sally and Bob were longtime members of People’s Memorial Association (PMA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing low-cost, high-quality end-of-life arrangements (see end of article for more information). As a result of their membership in PMA, we knew our family would receive respectful, compassionate care—without any of the price-gouging that so often happens within the funeral industry.
John checked with the PMA-contracted funeral home to be sure that those of us who wanted to witness Sally’s cremation could do so. They assured us that this would be totally okay. While John was asking about this, Bob chimed in in the background, “We want to carry her to the fire ourselves!” I joked back to Bob that we are definitely a “hands on” family!
Next, Bob asked the women who were present to wash Sally’s body and prepare it for the wake. There were five women there that night, including me. We all felt honored to be given this task. The men adjourned into the kitchen, and one of the women held up a sheet for privacy. The rest of us gently bathed Sally’s body with washcloths dipped in warm water.
We worked seamlessly as a team as if we’d all done this together before. The love we felt for Sally was palpable, and our tenderness toward her body was profound.
We talked to Sally and thanked her for being so wonderful. We all noticed how beautiful she still was, even as an 82-year-old woman who had just suffered through illness and death. Because of her pulmonary fibrosis, her final days were not easy, though palliative care made them gentler.
We reminisced about Sally skinny dipping in rivers and swimming in her sexy black bathing suit in Portage Bay. I told Sally that she was still a babe! We laughed and talked and wept as we worked.
One of Sally’s friends had brought an elegant green kimono for Sally to wear for her wake. We removed her hospital gown, changed the bedding to fresh sheets, and dressed her in the green kimono.
Someone placed a huge yellow daffodil in Sally’s hands, which we had gently crossed over her chest. Another woman tucked a baby photo of her youngest granddaughter, Nicole, underneath the daffodil in her hands. The image of crone and infant together was very sweet.
To top off Sally’s final “outfit,” we brushed her long hair and smoothed it into a bun. We tied the bun together with an Asian-style clasp that looked great with the kimono. One of the women added a bright red feather boa around Sally’s neck, pronouncing that the boa was to honor the wild woman in Sally. It was perfect!
After a couple of hours, people slowly began to disperse one by one. Some of the family and friends decided to stay the night, in case Bob wanted support. Bob had been a tender and devoted partner for Sally during her dying process. John and I and several other people thanked him again for his love and support.
John and I came back home a little before midnight, marveling at the beauty and grace of Sally’s passing. She was truly a wild woman, even in death.
This article was originally published on April 14, 2006 and updated in May 2017. Special thanks to Paula Springer for her photo of Sally (from May 1993).
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).