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  • Gabriella van Rij

On How We Find Our Way Back

What makes us lose self to such a degree that we are not sure what happened? Who did we become?

One thing I am certain of underneath all the veneer and polish, we are still there.

The true essence of our amazing personalities is there, maybe not for the whole world to see, but it’s right there just beneath the surface. And preparing for death brings that essence to the surface, almost spontaneously.

I have helped many people by simply sitting with them until their last breath. Nobody should ever go through their final moments alone.

In my experience, the curious thing is that all these different people had a common denominator.

You would think that the commonality I am talking about is regarding their initial reluctance over the finality of what lay ahead or whether they had a hard time saying goodbye to their loved ones. But no, it is not.

The commonality is that they move back into their essence, their self, and they seem, no matter what, quietly surprised at that.

Once they get over the initial awkwardness, they seem to embrace it as if they are welcoming back an old friend. A small, knowing smile moves across their face.

For example, spending time with my father during his last days, I saw so clearly what a soft and kind essence he was hiding. I almost did not recognize him, but I suddenly realized that the child in me recognized him from so long ago.

If you are lucky, you get glimpses of the depth of someone from time to time. Either they let their guard down or they have moments of vulnerability. No matter which is the case, you can experience their being. It is very beautiful to see.

Back to the dying during their last weeks or days: I do not feel they are aware that their essence was hidden when they finally decided to display it.

See, when we are born and when we are very young, there is no reason to hide who we are, as we seem not as preoccupied with what the ego thinks. We are just there. Merely present. I use the word “merely” on purpose, as the very young child does this with ease.

Thousands of gurus or coaches wish to teach us how to be in the present because we too often worry about what will happen in five minutes, five days, or weeks or months from now, without realizing that the future is not guaranteed. I have never understood—not even while writing this—why I have been aware of this fact forever.

We have moments in different chapters of our lives, and I purposefully say “lives” because, especially for women, we have so many roles we juggle in a day. We are someone’s child, someone’s mother, someone’s partner, or the person keeping a company together.

Each is a different role we play within our life. And I would not fault anyone who, in all this activity, forgets who they are.

Each role we have, we try to embrace it to the best of our abilities, but it is not easy. As if the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses is not enough to give you nightmares, your cultural background might also be quite daunting—without even getting into family expectations—all of this is a lot for anyone.

Yet, no matter how different we are in personalities or circumstances, as the final curtain falls, we shine through. I saw it firsthand in everyone I ever sat with, whether holding the hand of a dear loved one or an absolute stranger.

When you get the immense privilege of witnessing this, you know instinctively you are in front of the real person.

Two examples of this spring to mind:

The first is a lady I only knew a little. Even though I might not have known her for years, while sitting with her in hospice, the essence of who she was came through to the surface, even without words: an incredibly gentle soul. This gentleness shone through when she thanked me for wetting her cracked lips. She lit up the room, the light that came off her face, she didn’t even look old. She looked young.

The second example is when my father tapped my cheek until I lay my head next to him. There was not a word spoken; there was just a deep sigh of gratefulness for me being near. At that moment, I didn’t see the frailty of my father. All I saw was his essence.

And in these actions, I knew how kind they were in their lives. But somehow we miss seeing the true essence of each other because we rush through life, as they do, too. And I wouldn’t want anyone to miss such a beautiful moment of discovery if at all possible.

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