when terminal illness enters your life
by Anjee Gitte Carlsen
These days there are a lot of books being written on death– people’s accounts of their own dying process or that of a loved one – and documentaries of people, filmed in
their home or hospice, telling us how they feel about their approaching demise. That death has come out of the closet can only be a good thing.
I’ve read and seen quite a lot of what is available and delved deeply into the subject through personal experience and my work. Anjee Gitte Carlsen’s, To Live And To Die: when terminal illness enters your life, is refreshingly different and well worth reading.
The fact that I know Anjee and knew Gunnar, her partner [in the Osho community known as Habib], whose journey we follow, and Kiki the cat; have stayed in their house; know their meditation centre [OSHO Risk] and the surrounding countryside, probably colours my appreciation. But I don’t think that familiarity alone explains the impact her book has had on me.
To Live and To Die is an unpretentious-looking publication. At just over a hundred pages the volume is slim and the layout spacious. That last feature perfectly fits the content. Anjee’s and Gunnar’s journey – from the first disturbing symptoms and the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour to the scattering of his ashes and her life afterwards – is paced in such a way as to invite one to pause. To muse, to be moved, to ingest, let settle and slowly then to resume.
Usually a speedy reader, I frequently did want to stop and feel… even to savour the observations, the self-revelations, the musings on life and love and letting go. So there was more the sense of reading a poem than a novel.
Her background as a psychotherapist informs Anjee’s perceptivity and languaging. Her foreground as a meditator makes possible the depth and breadth of her clarity, groundedness, honesty, humour and love.
The emotional roller coaster she describes – of shock, denial, hope and excitement; tenderness, loneliness, fun and fear; irritation, meditation, gratitude, acceptance and understanding; times of trying to control and of letting go and, afterwards, of grief – has the ring of deeply felt emotions. Yet there is no sense of the maudlin.
Observing the man she has known and loved change physically and as a personality, she finally has to admit to herself that they are now moving in different directions. The inexorable process of their parting ways extends into all aspects of their life with the silent acknowledgement of “ ‘this will never be again for us’…. Gunnar is in a process of letting go of life and I am in the process of letting go of Gunnar…. Now I feel to the core of my bones what it is like to let go when your loved one dies.”
What of Gunnar’s internal world? Anjee observes his “state of calm acceptance” of the hospital system; at other times, of his deep emotionality… “as if the defences that we normally have, which keep us from being spontaneous and showing what we really think or feel, have disappeared….” He has become “a kind of laughing wise man… a mixture of a child and a buddha.”
As a meditator, Gunnar perceives a “core of consciousness in us that has nothing to do with the body. Through his many years of meditating, he has met this core again and again, which is untouched by illness, suffering and death…. This familiarity with consciousness enables him to rest in contact with his soul, even though body and brain slowly deteriorate.”
There are many poignant moments that Anjee describes with the economy of a Zen master painter….
- Just told nothing more can be done, that Gunnar has between 1-3 months, in the hospital café “We sit there and eat, speechless and pale.”
- Realising he has little time left, the next-door neighbours fast-forwarding plans that were for Spring to chop down their bushes so that light can now flood into Gunnar’s bedroom.
- The last birthday he will celebrate, Gunnar surrounded by forty friends, sending him healing energy. His lit-up face and then his dissolving into tears of gratitude.
- His last walk in the village, telling neighbours, “I just want to say goodbye for it is not certain we will see each other again.” Hugs and tears.
- Gunnar no longer able to talk, the many hours spent together in silence, holding hands, sometimes listening to music. “When we sit and look out onto the winter landscape and the small birds in the garden, no words are missing.”
- His last breath and, in the silence left in its wake, the small group with him “sit there in another world, a world of light and peace with a touch of pain.” Then Kikki running down the stairs and jumping onto Angie’s lap, where she sits, purring.
- At the meditation centre Gunnar’s open coffin surrounded by the love of fellow meditators: music, tear, laughter: “Everybody saying goodbye in their own way. Finally, the music stops and… we sit in silence.”
“Afterwards, the boundaries between life and death seemed ultra-thin,” Anjee writes. “As time passed, the window became smaller. The sorrow became integrated into my system and the boundaries looked a little bit more like those that were here before Gunnar’s departure….
“But the window is still there. Sometimes I forget to look out of it, but the light still enters and makes my life richer and more intense than it has ever been before. Thank you, Gunnar.”
Thank you, Anjee. Thank you for sharing this intimate experience of loving and letting go of one for whom you cared so deeply.
To buy the English print edition: http://www.visdomsbogerne.dk
The e-book is due to be available from the start of this month. Both the e-book and the paperback will be available on Amazon. For further information contact the author: [email protected]