Gift from the Ancestors: My Work as an RN/Midwife to the Dying

Where I come from, nobody knows
Where I’m going, everything goes
The tree grows, the wind blows,
the River flows

Circle Song, Jess River

Nana, my Russian grandmother (her name was Zipa), was the first person to contact me from the other side. She had died the night before my eighteenth birthday, which for me solidified and sanctified my spiritual connection to her. Zipa and I shared a bedroom when I was growing up in New Jersey. Each night, my child-self would keep my eyes open long enough to watch her slowly unbraid her waist-length grey/white hair and calmly comb it out before she crawled into her single bed, across from mine.  She was my first mentor.

Zipa stood only 4’10” tall, but her strength was enormous.  As a young woman she left her orthodox Jewish home in the shtetl in Russia where girls could not be educated and went to Kiev to become a seamstress and eventually a nurse/birth midwife.  She and her husband were involved with the Mensheviks in the Russian revolution and had to move to Germany.  Many of her family were killed by Nazi genocide. Her husband went on a trip to Paris, where he committed suicide.  After that Zipa lived in London during WWII, nursing her only daughter who was dying of metastatic cancer.  After the war my father brought her to America, where she survived until the age of ninety-four. She had witnessed the first train pull into her tiny village in Russia, (“no horses,” she would laugh) and the first man land on the Moon.  She taught me never to give up hope for each other or the earth.  She also taught me how to make fabulous pastry and pies. She sang me to sleep most nights as a child– Russian lullabies that I still sing to this day.

I was twenty years old in 1973, living on a commune in Northern California, in a yurt made from discarded triangular sections of geodesic domes, when she appeared. It was a dark, balmy summer evening and I was just falling asleep on my mattress on the floor, covered with a sheet and my lightweight sleeping bag. Suddenly there was a whoosh of air and a feeling that someone was standing in the room, beckoning me awake. I was afraid. I closed my eyes tightly and pulled the sleeping bag up over my head. I still felt the Being standing close, watching me. Then I heard her voice, so clear, so strong in her mixed European accents. I began to breathe more calmly and slowly took the covers off my face and opened my eyes. All I could see was a faint shadow of energy, but the voice continued:

  “I have come to tell you that I’m alright. That I’m fine, actually. I am at peace. You are the only one in the family that I could come to. I knew you would understand and not be afraid. I need you to tell Alex, my son, your father, that I am alright.”  Then just as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone.

A few years later, when I lay in the snow on top of Zipa’s grave in northern Vermont, asking her for connection, for a sign, the changed words to an old Quaker song came through:

T’is a gift to know the Spirit
T’is a gift to feel the Heart
T’is a gift to know that where we end, we start
And when we understand
that the Truth and the Light
Are inside us,
To Guide us,
We come round right

Zipa has visited occasionally since that evening in 1973, always as a presence of calm and connection. Her strongest presence and guidance, however, came fifteen years after her initial appearance.

September 1988. My best friend Kim was in a coma in the ICU at Marin General Hospital, after somersaulting off her motorcycle in rush hour traffic on Highway 101, heading home to the quiet roads of Mendocino County—the only roads she was accustomed to riding. I had a very strong connection to Kim that did not end when we ended our romantic relationship several years earlier. We remained best friends and music partners. Two nights before she left on her motorcycle trip to the Yosemite Women’s Music Festival, I had a dream that she was in an accident. The night before she left, when I dropped her off after work at her self-built yurt in the woods, I told her I was nervous about her trip and that I hoped she would put a card in her wallet with all my numbers where I could be reached, “just in case.”  “They’ll figure it out,” she grimaced, accusing me of acting like her mother (I was five years older).

A week later, arriving home after sunset to our communal kitchen/living room on the women’s land where I lived with my partner and several other women, the phone rang and I knew.  I picked up and immediately felt the whoosh of intense energy all around me. It was a police officer, looking at the card in Kim’s wallet with my phone numbers. I phoned Kim’s family, a few close friends, and then the hospital to attempt to get more information. The ICU nurse could only tell me was that it was “very serious.” She said if this were her best friend, she would come now.

Three of us piled into one of our old Volkswagens, hoping it would survive the three-hour drive over dark, twisting and hilly roads from Mendocino to Marin County.   We sang and tried to connect through the ethers to Kim’s spirit as we drove.  When we arrived, late at night, after navigating the halls of an unfamiliar hospital, we walked into a surreal scene.

Kim’s thin, muscular body was connected to every tube and machine imaginable. Her body looked fine, just a few scratches and bruises, thanks to the leather pants and jacket she had worn despite the late summer heat.  But her head was the size of a beach ball, swollen, discolored, and also connected by wires to various mechanical devices. The bed constantly and slowly rotated from side to side.

Survival was not certain.

Each night, once darkness had enveloped the world outside and most people had left the hospital, I would enter the finally quiet ICU and work with Kim’s energy field. I would lay crystals on her chakras, run energy and try to communicate with her Spirit, something I innately knew how to do. At one point when I asked her directly if she wanted to stay, I thought she opened her eyes briefly and for a moment, connected with me on this earthly plane. But mostly our communication was on a heart/soul level. I knew her answer.   When her blood pressure and heart rate and intra-cranial pressures slowly came down on the ICU monitors, the nurses would rush in and ask what I was doing.

“Just running energy, being present with her,” I replied.

Kim turned thirty during her three weeks of lying in what Western medicine so oddly terms a “vegetative state.”  Comatose. Unresponsive as we understand the concept.  I knew that Kim would choose one of three days to die: her birthday, the Autumn Equinox, or the Full Moon.  A few years before she had named herself “Kim Moonwater.” We lived in a community where connection to Nature, to the Earth and stars and all sentient Beings was the foundation of our lives.

On Kim’s thirtieth birthday, about twenty of us gathered in a circle on the front lawn of the hospital –singing, crying and praying for her release. We were not accustomed to young people dying, but I knew it was her time. Kim had always made sudden and drastic changes in her life. Her death was no different. She stayed for her birthday and the Equinox and chose the Full Moon to let go.

During those intense weeks, each time I entered the sanctum of life and death known as Intensive Care, it was Zipa’s voice I heard, saying “This is the work you are on the Earth to do.  You are here to be a midwife to the dying, to witness this transition from life to death. To communicate with the dying and the living. This IS your work.”

And so it is.

The gift I received from Kim and from my grandmother was this very clear guidance.  I had been a pre-med dropout in the Ivy Leagues in 1971, but now it was 1988, and I understood that I would need a legitimate profession (other than artist/musician/healer/writer) to show up at bedsides of the dying, to witness their transitions and help guide their loved ones. Thanks to the voices and spirit connections that I never once doubted, I re-entered school as soon as I could and became a Nurse.

On New Year’s Day 1989, several months after Kim’s death, I was standing at her graveside on her land, where we had planted her “cremains” in a beautiful box in the earth under one of her favorite redwood trees. I felt her strongly. I spoke out loud, saying, “If you are really here with me, send a song.” Within moments I was channeling these verses (now sung regularly in our communities’ spiritual circles):

Take one step at a time my friend,
take one breath at a time.
Think one thought at a time, my friend
and Love all the time

Your heart is the key, dear friend
You must open your eyes to the sky.
Plant your feet on the ground,
my friend
and let your Spirit fly

Family Ancestors: Visitations and Lessons

Part of my professional journey included twelve years of Directing Palliative Care and Nursing at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco.  The day I went to be interviewed, in 2006, I sat in their Holocaust Center Library, surrounded by books written about the Nazi atrocities. I suddenly felt one of those surges of energy and voice, clarifying for me that part of my work in attempting to serve people so they might die peacefully was reparation for all the ancestors of mine and others who had died so traumatically. When I am at a bedside, humming or chanting old Jewish tunes and prayers, with or without a Rabbi, I am transported to the old country, feeling my ancestors from the Jewish side, my grandmother, my father, but even way beyond them—ancestors from much more ancient times—humming along with me.

When I feel the presence of beings/ancestors from the other side, it is often at night, but I do not experience it as a dream. There is a more present, urgent and ethereal quality to these visitations that is difficult to describe in words. I sense that it is similar to the presences people feel during the dying process. So many I have attended in their dying (including my father) speak of seeing their older relatives and friends who have been long gone. Or they describe a simple scene they are engaged in—hanging laundry, playing solitaire, talking to a grandparent—that is as real to them as this world is to us.

I midwifed both of my parents as they died six weeks apart from each other in 1996.  It was crystal clear to me that in our family system I would be the one to assist their Spirits in leaving this world.  My mother died within a week of being hospitalized at age seventy-nine. During that week, I often felt the presence of her sisters, who had predeceased her. I tried to talk about it to my mother as she floated between worlds, hoping that the energy of her sisters might comfort her.  In my father’s last days he often spoke to his mother (Zipa) and asked me to make sure I took care of her when he was gone. He communicated with his deceased sister as well and spoke about going home, shouting to me from his hospital bed in my spare bedroom, to “get the car.”

My older sister lived with metastatic cancer for eleven years (ten years longer than predicted). Six months before the end of her life, we had a conversation in which she finally admitted that she knew she would die soon, and described to me the three times that she had died in the past few years of her cancer (all actual near-death experiences that she had never before discussed.) She said, “We never grew up with any religion, and I don’t have any spiritual understanding of life, but I know that without either one of those things, dying is going to be difficult. Can you help me learn to meditate?”

I wasn’t able to do that, but in the last days of her life, she talked almost non-stop about things she was seeing and experiencing that were not tangible on this plane. She would come in and out of different levels of consciousness and was in constant conversation with people I could not see. At one point I asked if she knew the people she was talking to, and she said that she only recognized some of them, but their answers to her questions helped calm her fears.

At another point, after talking to her ethereal friends she turned to me where I sat beside her bed and asked, “Where are we in the Bible now?”

I was taken aback as I am not in the habit of reading the Bible. But I did remember that my sister had been a Bible reader in high school, back when public schools included Bible reading in assemblies.

I said I didn’t know where we were, but she insisted.  I took some deep breaths, considered her question seriously and finally was able to answer: “We are at the part that says Surely goodness and Mercy shall be with you always and you will dwell with Spirit forever.” She smiled and said, “That’s right, that’s where we are.”

A Potent Patient Relationship

It’s the blood of the Ancients that runs through our veins;
The forms pass, but the Circle of Life remains.

Chorus to a song by Charlie Murphy

In nursing school, as with all healthcare professional training, we are warned not to get too close to patients. Not to cross that “patient/clinician” boundary. But aren’t we all human beings, attending to each other in whatever ways we can in the moment? Doesn’t the “soft animal of our body love what it loves?” (Mary Oliver) 

In 2010, when I was still working in a community-based palliative care setting, a palliative care MD colleague and friend called me one day asking me to assess a patient of his whom he cared about a lot.   She had just had a second back surgery for breast cancer that had metastasized to her spine, and she was in a rehab facility, but would need many levels of support and assistance when she returned home. He warned me, “You will fall in love with her.”

He was right. Pretty much anyone who met Merijane fell in love with her, and many people thought of her as their best friend. I walked into her room in the rehab facility cautiously, as a few others were at her bedside talking to her. She was SO beautiful, her long, thick auburn hair tumbling over the shoulders of her hospital gown, her eyes sparkling despite the pain she was in, and her smile so wide, so welcoming.  She was also brilliant, with a quick wit, and as I was to discover, a fine writer. Merijane would quickly become more friend than patient.

Meri had already lived with metastatic cancer for nineteen years when I met her.  Most of our adventures (when I was not arranging healthcare for her or attending appointments) involved endless conversations while drinking tea, enjoying lovely meals, reading poetry and writing together. Our bond of life, friendship and love was clearly going to endure, wherever either of our Spirits resided. We both understood this, and discussed it often, especially after I too, had a cancer diagnosis in 2013.

I got the call about Meri’s admission to the ICU while I was attending a palliative care conference in Arizona, offering a session in poetic medicine that she was supposed to have co- led, as she had the previous year in Chicago. We had planned for her to have a helper come with her, to navigate traveling with a walker and wheelchair, as by 2017 she really could not walk easily on her own. News about ICU admissions is never good– I spent enough years running an ICU to know that for a fact. More news came in spurts for the next couple of days—she was better one minute, then she was worse. I knew I would have to assess the situation with my own eyes.

 I left the conference in Phoenix early and when I got off the plane, drove directly to the hospital. When I saw her lying in a bed, with a massive oxygen mask over her face, her skin drained of color, and her Spirit clearly hovering in the room, I knew it was indeed her time. None of us were ready, not friends, not her family, not the nurses and doctors who had cared for her for twenty-six years. No one wanted Meri to die.

I could tell she was struggling with the internal quandary of how long to stay. She had clearly stated in her Advance Directive and in many conversations with me and with others that she did not want to be kept alive just for the sake of being here a bit longer.  A few years before she had written in a prose piece, Longing to Leave: “I long to leave this body the way a snake leaves its skin, to shed the constraints of my restrictions real and learned and tread lightly across the landscape, as it was once so effortless to do.”  In our last conversation about this, a few weeks prior, she said, “I know I’m going to go sooner than I want. Sooner than you want. I’m ready. This is all too much.”  I didn’t want to hear this, but seeing her lying in an ICU bed, I had to accept: it was finally Meri’s time to leave.

We had her moved to a palliative care suite where all of us who loved her could be at her side, singing, praying, telling her how loved she was, how grateful we were for her. Many days after her death, I began to sense her near me.  I allowed myself to stop what I was doing and just listen. She was expressing what I knew she would have wanted to say, while she was floating in limbo in the hospital, between worlds.  I wrote down what I was hearing.  It felt like I was taking dictation from her Spirit.

Twenty-six years waking and sleeping with cancer as my constant bedfellow is enough. Lying here in Limbo I feel you I hear your loud and soft voices echoing sadness and gratitude. My Spirit senses your Love your struggles to surrender your tears.  Time does not exist for me but I know that the long and tedious hospital days and longer nights are trying on the Living.

And so, I contemplate the golden scales and clearly they are tipped in favor of flying…

Please know, I will smile as I quietly slip out of this sacred temple where I resided so bravely for as long as I could. And you who believe will bask in the radiance of my eternal Love and Grace, always.

Merijane Block with her mural, photo by Nancy Witherell


The Earth, She is my Mother
Her Rivers the blood that nourishes me,
Her Trees help me to breathe
and her Plants heal my body and Soul

from song The Earth is My Mother, 1973, Redwing Keyssar

It is the teachings of the Earth herself, through intensive ceremony and experiences with both meditation and medicine plants, that have enabled me to open my own heart and Spirit to something much bigger than my tiny, human day-to-day existence. Medicine plants have been powerful teachers to me—opening my own doors of perception, enabling me to see and feel and hear the voices of the wind, the rocks and those who have lived and died before me.

I have felt the Spirit leaving a body—through the crown chakra and through the will (third) chakra. I have felt Spirits hovering in the corners of ICU rooms, waiting for the right time to complete their out-of-body journey. I watched a man who was an incredible singer and had been dying of AIDS for weeks rise up from his pillow, arms outstretched, take a deep inhale as if to start an aria, and then drop back down to the bed with his final exhale. When my forty-five-year-old friend/patient was dying of metastatic breast cancer in the hospital and seemed to have taken her last breath, she  inhaled deeply, sat up and opened her eyes and asked me, “I’m not dead yet?”

I had to say “No, not yet.”  She then said, “It’s so hard to die with so much love around me.”

I have also witnessed Beings who left this world so quickly, there was barely time for anyone to cry.

I have experienced out-of-body journeys of my own, as well as regular visitations and signs from various ancestors, all of which have helped me understand the multiple and non-linear layers of reality that exist at all times.

I have stood on black lava witnessing rivers of fierce fire flowing down a Hawaiian mountainside and heating my feet. I have felt transformative turquoise ocean waves healing my body, knowing that the Spirit of this Earth is so much more powerful than any human will ever understand. And standing at the bedsides of the dying, time and time again, I have learned that Love is indeed our most poignant force and flows on from lifetime to lifetime, form to formlessness, in spirals that connect the center of this planet to the heights of this universe.

About the Author

“I am the grandchild of women who come from traditions so old.
I  am a seeker of visions, in dreams and in songs, I am told.”

Redwing is an RN with experience in Oncology, Critical Care, Hospice and Palliative Care as well as a  ceremonialist, musician, artist and educator. She is currently the Director of Patient and Caregiver Education at the MERI Center for Education in Palliative Care at UCSF/Mt. Zion.  She was previously Clinical Director at Zen Hospice Project and Director of Palliative Care and Nursing at Jewish Family and Children’s Services.  She is a founder of and adjunct faculty at the California State University Shiley/Haynes Institute of Palliative Care.  Redwing is the author of an award-winning book, Last Acts of Kindness; Lessons for the Living from the Bedsides of the Dying” and the recipient of the Individual Leadership in Palliative CareAward from the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California as well as the prestigious AAHPM Humanities Award for her incorporation of poetry and story-telling in the field of Palliative Care. (American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine)

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