A Bedside Ritual for Saying Goodbye After Last Breath
As a Celebrant (trained ceremonialist) I appreciate the ways that simple rituals can help people manage all the feelings that rise when we encounter end-of-life, in our personal lives and in our professions. I came across this Saying Goodbye ritual in an online discussion about offering comfort and solace in a hospital setting after last breath. And I have learned about other ideas for rituals being shared in similar contexts (please visit One Washcloth Project to learn more https://onewashcloth.org/)
The ritual I am sharing here is a bathing and honoring practice for after last breath developed by oncology nurses, a ritual that answers the desire for spiritual comfort in an appropriate way, without intruding on any person's individual beliefs. The ritual is nondenominational and non religious, yet dignified and sacred.
When I was a chaplain intern in the NICU I made my own private rituals to honor the dignity and humanity of the challenged and struggling babies. And then from observation and proximity I noticed that many of the people working there, nurses, docs, social workers, housekeeping staff, also had little rituals that helped them honor life, and manage the loss inherent in their work.
I encourage you to try out rituals like this one and then adapt them to your own language for honoring life. If the way they phrase something here is not your style, then don't be shy about finding the words that come naturally for you to better serve the people in the room. Even in hospital or clinical settings our rituals after last breath can be tuned to be in harmony with simple and available resources, bringing solace in the moment. I encourage you to experiment.
~ Saying Goodbye ~
Oncology nurses Debra Rodgers, Debbie Roth, and Beth Calmes created this 'bathing and honoring practice' to help families—and themselves—bring dignity, calm and sacredness to the aftermath of a hospital death. First the body of the dead person is washed and dressed in clothes from home or a clean gown. Family can be a part of this, or wait outside the room. Then the nurses encourage relatives and friends to anoint their loved one's hair with essential oil (they suggest lavender, I prefer rosemary) and recite:
“We honor (Jane’s) hair, that the wind has played with.”
Next a dab of oil is gently rubbed on the brow, as someone says, “
We honor (Jane’s) brow, the birthplace of her thoughts.”
In each sentence, recite the name of the person in the appropriate place:
We honor (your) eyes that have looked on us with love and viewed the beauty of
We honor your nostrils, the gateway of breath.
We honor your ears that listened for our voices.
We honor your lips that have spoken truth.
We honor your shoulders that have borne burdens and strength.
We honor your heart that has loved us.
We honor your arms that have embraced us.
We honor your hands that have held our hands and done so many things in life.
We honor your legs that carried you into new places of new challenge.
We honor your feet that walked your own path through life.
We give thanks to the gifts that you have given us in our lifetime.
We give thanks for the memories that we created together.
We have been honored to be a part of your life.
 Adapted with permission from Debra Rodgers, et al, “Nursing Care at the Time of Death: A Bathing and Honoring Practice,” Oncology Nursing Forum Vol. 43, May 2016. © 2016 Oncology Nursing Forum. This version is adapted from the version that appears in Katy Butler’s book, The Art of Dying Well, (c) Scribner 2019. All rights reserved.
Dina Stander, End-of-life Navigator: www.dinastander.com and @ Northeast Death Care Collaborative on Facebook