Ben Dennis,one of a panel of teachers at the Minnesota Men’s Conference, describes absorbing a mysterious lesson in the course of his ongoing work as a firefighter. –mg
“The most essential thing in life is to establish an unafraid, heartfelt communication with others, and it is never more important than with a dying person.” – Sogyal Rinpoche
The Experience of the Numinous: In Service of Death and Dying
The Veteran in a New Field by Winslow Homer 1865
The Great Figure
Among the rain and lights
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
William Carlos Williams (1920)
The Figure Five in Gold, by Charles Demuth (1928)
As a professional firefighter for a major US city, about seventy percent of my calls are medical and it is common for me to be the first to arrive at the scene, followed shortly by the paramedics who perform the more elaborate procedures. During my probation year in the Department, we were seeing an elderly woman who was not breathing. It was my first CPR response. I was responsible for chest compressions, oxygen, and airway management—the ABC’s (Airway, Breathing, and Circulation).
As we entered the room, the family was distraught and the woman was lying on the floor. I went straight to her and checked for a pulse, putting my fingers on her wrist—nothing. I then felt for a pulse in her neck—again, nothing. I immediately began CPR, first cutting her clothing off and getting her ready for the paramedics who would arrive shortly. I placed the palm of my hand on her chest, and began to press downward. At first, there was resistance. Then, as I pushed harder, I could feel the ribs break free from the sternum (I now have, in my body’s memory, the feeling of bones breaking beneath my hands). The paramedics arrived and began their efforts.
I could feel something beneath my hands, not the physical body, but a kind of energy, or maybe the electricity of life. During my efforts, I prayed and spoke to the woman. I had a sense that she was nearby, maybe hovering, and I asked her, “Do you need to stay? Can I help?” With that question in my mind, I continued my efforts.
The paramedics arrived, assessed the situation, and started an intravenous line to administer medications while I continued chest compressions. After a time, my partner relieved me and we switched—he took over chest compressions and I moved to managing the bag-mask, giving air to the woman. Every two minutes my partner and I alternated between chest compressions and the airway, diligently giving our best efforts for the woman.
As I continued with CPR, I felt the energy beneath my hands move out and away from the woman. There was both an electrical feeling in my palms and a sense of dissipation in the field around her. The nearest thing to the feeling I can think of is the sense of someone watching me from afar; and having that sense leave when the attention is no longer directed my way.
As I continued to work and to pray, I watched what I could only explain as the movement of the woman’s spirit outward and away from her body. I had the sense that she was observing everything from some place higher in the room while we worked. It seemed to me that while her body was not conscious, there was something of her essence in the room, an awareness of sorts, and for these few moments I was in contact with her spirit even as she was departing from her body. Finally, the paramedics ceased efforts and we stopped CPR. The woman was dead.
After we stopped, I cleaned her up, removed the IV’s, cleaned her face and arms, covered her body with a blanket, and made her as presentable as possible for her family. We gathered up our equipment and used medical supplies, then helped the paramedics finish their tasks while they explained to the family what had happened. After making arrangements for the coroner, we left the woman in her home, with her family in mourning.
She was the first person who had died in my hands, the first whose bones I broke trying to save her, and the first whom I helped to die. Later that evening I reflected on what happened and it occurred to me that my role in this struggle of life and death was to hold the door open for a time. If I am called and the person needs to live, then maybe my efforts can provide the opportunity for life to continue. If they are finished here and ready to move on, then maybe I can help usher them to the other side. I give my very best efforts at both.
Over the years I have come to understand something powerful. The task of placing hands on someone’s chest, pumping their heart, and even breaking bones when necessary, is an intimacy like no other. The ribs are the structure within which the heart is able to function. Ribs protect the heart, provide a framework for the pleural musculature to expand and contract the chest, inflating and deflating the lungs. Ribs armor the vital organs of life. Yet, if the structure of protection and support is not flexible enough, it becomes a cage in which the heart and lungs are held tight. There is a need to at least partially break through this rigid framework when the heart stops, otherwise life cannot be re-introduced and the person dies. To me, this is a metaphor for living. Flexibility is needed if we are to live, and the possibility of new life sometimes requires an outside influence to break free that which is stuck.
That January night I had a dream. It was a dream like very few in my life. I could see color, smell grass, hear the birds in the air, and I could feel a special glow. In the dream, I had a clear sense of being awake, knowing that I was in a dream, and everything I saw was infused with gold.
The dream went like this…
I was in a field of tall grass. There were maple trees here and there, and birds and insects were flying all around. It was just as you would imagine any summertime field—only more so.
Some distance away there was a small group of people dressed in white—maybe twenty or thirty men, women, and children. They were having a picnic and there were tables full of food. It was a fine picnic!
In between the group of people and myself stood the woman who had died the night before. She was dressed in a flowing white dress and full figured with a beautiful smile on her face. Her eyes were twinkling. As I watched, she turned toward me, nodded, waved, then turned and walked to the party. As she drew near, the group gathered around her in welcome and a celebration began.
As I watched this, I had a tremendous sense of satisfaction and relief. I felt as though I had helped her in some small way, that she had acknowledged me, and thanked me for my help. I also had the sense that she was saying goodbye to me in a way that demanded that I let her go to be with her family. I was not supposed to follow or try to hold on to her, beyond the memory of the events and the gift of the dream.
Periodically, I have reflected on this dream and the implications it has in my life and work. This was, for me, a deeply spiritual experience and following the dream, I had to make a choice regarding my approach to being a fireman. Each day I would come to work and make life and death decisions for people whom I did not know. I had to show up and give my best, no matter what the circumstances were. I learned that when a person reaches a place in life where choices and possibilities are reduced to the unmanageable, they call 911. Sometimes the situations appeared silly; sometimes someone was on the edge of madness or death. In all situations those who call are at the end of their ability to help themselves. This is where I come in and this is what I do—I help.
Here is the heart of my ongoing contemplation. I have had to continually ask myself, “How will I show up?” “In what way will I respond to those who call?” In the face of these questions, I have had to repeatedly ask myself, “How can I do this work in the face of such powerful and life-shattering events and not shut down my spirit, not be jaded, not let my soul die?”
Early in my career I participated in a mindfulness workshop based on a Taoist perspective. We were asked to create a response, that we were willing to share with others, to a question. The question was posed to all of the attendees: “In your life, how do you manage to show up no matter what.” Contemplating my answer was a pivotal moment. I had to confront all of the decisions I had made up to that point in my life and bring vocal clarity that would reveal why I chose my line of work. I was being asked, “In what way, did I show up in life—‘no matter what?’” In other words, what was my baseline for functioning in the world, how did I present myself regardless of the events surrounding me?
The answer for me, after much agony and releasing of mental gymnastics, was this: “No matter what, I respond with an open heart. It is my nature.” My choice—my commitment—was to show up with an open heart, “no matter what.” The old lady in my dream, waving to me before going to her people, let me know that with an open heart, and a willingness to see, I had helped her on her journey.
From then on I began to work diligently at having, and keeping, an open heart. I worked with the energies as I saw them. I prayed and I put myself into my work with as much openness as I was able. I let my imagination fuel my work and my approach. When called, I came ready to help in any way I could, I offered what consolation I was able, and did what was necessary to save a life. And, if I was not successful, I would send on those I saw with prayers and what blessings I knew how to give. I knew I couldn’t do a lot, but it seemed to me that approaching my work as a skilled and spiritual being willing to show up, I was helping—at least that was what I sensed. For a while that worked well and I actually found myself quite proud of what I accomplished.
After a few years, I had another life-altering experience. We were called to a fifty year-old man with an apparent heart attack. He seemed in good health, lived in a nice home, and had his family around him when we arrived and found him lying on a fine Persian rug. I was the first on the scene and immediately began CPR—by this time I was an old veteran and knew just what to do. The medics arrived and began their work, starting an IV, administering the drugs, and giving defibrillator shocks as needed. I continued with the chest compressions, my hands over his heart.
At one point I could feel his pulse. It was weak but present. I stopped compressions and just held one hand over his heart and felt for his pulse with the other. As his pulse weakened I felt a warm tingling move upward through my hands, gently tugging at the hairs on my arms. As his pulse grew weaker I began CPR again and the medics gave more medicine. I felt the tingling again, only this time it felt as if it were moving in the other direction—like a rush of warmth moving purposefully back through my hands and into his body. His pulse bounded up again and I had a sense that energy was filling him up, flowing through my hands, and settling back into him. Again, I stopped compressions, checked for his pulse, and remained poised over him.
Benjamin Dennis PhD
I imagined putting my own life energy into him through my hands, hoping to give him a little bit of “extra juice.” I really wanted him to live!
Then, in a rush, I felt his life force rise out of his body, back out through my hands, and he was gone—emptiness! Even as I began compressions again, I felt like I was on a precipice and losing my balance, I felt like I fell into an abyss. The emptiness where there was once a living person should have been occupied! Someone should have been there! And, I tumbled. For a long time I fell, lost in a vast expanse of grief and despair. I had experienced death many times. Yet, for some reason, this was different. Maybe it was how young he was, or my hubris for thinking I could “give him energy,” or just simply that I was unprepared in that moment—I do not know. It took a very long to time to recover from that day and even as I write this, the tears rush to my eyes.
In those moments I managed to find some footing and return to the work at hand. We continued our efforts to bring him back for a while longer and finally ceased. As the flurry of activity slowed, I stepped into the rituals that I knew well. I cleaned his body, removed all of the IVs, washed his arms, chest and face, and I found a blanket to cover him, and put his head on a pillow with his face showing so the family could come and make their goodbyes. This was my personal ritual, the preparation of the dead, the simple gift I had to offer those who were left behind.
I was severely shaken and for many months I had a hard time coming to terms with the feelings I experienced that day. I spent a lot of time meditating, praying, and doing the rituals and ceremonies I have been taught. It was like a piece of me had been left inside the space that was once occupied by this man, a part of me that took a very long time to get back—if I ever did. I suppose I could have done a “soul-retrieval,” or some other “therapy,” but I had enough skepticism and stubbornness that I chose to attend to myself the best I was able. After a time, the effects diminished and the strange emptiness I felt inside no longer haunted me as much. From that point on I was much more cautious, afraid to once again step that far into the breach.
To this day I continue to work with an open heart to the best of my ability. Compassion, diligence, and attention are constantly with me as I meet people at their worst. However, I am careful not to let myself get overextended, yet conscious that it is an important place to occupy. It is easy to let myself take risks for granted and to equate all risk as similar, but this is far from the truth. Along with physical danger, there are also intangible dangers that are perilous to the soul. I have learned that there are many different kinds of dangers in this rather extreme business.
I realize now that I have been able to keep an open heart with the dying (often more than with the living). When faced with death, I can open my heart, I am able to connect with other realms, watch the movement of the world around me through spiritual eyes, and manage what I am able with certainty and frankness. It may be that death strangely comforts me. It has a feeling of clarity, certainty, and completeness that is satisfying in an odd sort of way. Death is a part of this grand dance of life, and my feet will tread that terrain one day, knees shaking I am sure, but tread there I will. For now, I live the best way I know. I greet my friends with kindness and gratitude, I welcome new friends with graciousness, and I take what life has to offer with a nod and a smile.
We live in a world rich with beauty and if we can keep our eyes and heart turned toward that beauty—well, isn’t that a good thing?
– Benjamin Dennis, PhD
The Art of Dying
The Great Figure
Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed