Ed. Whether it’s the high pitched melody from Tom Petty’s classic; the mellow acoustics of John Mayer’s cover; or that scene from Jerry Maguire – just the idea of free falling can evoke a variety of emotions and sensations in us all.
Here we thank Karen Williamson, a Palliative Care Clinical Nurse Specialist from Auckland, for sharing her experience of and reflections on The Zen of Freefall.
This week I jumped out of a plane. From 13,000 feet, I fell for 45 seconds at about 195 kilometres per hour towards the earth before the parachute deployed. And it occurred to me, as I was about to tip out of that small aircraft (with, I’m pleased to say, a skydive master strapped to my back), that maybe, just maybe, this is what it’s like to die. Maybe that is why it’s called terminal velocity.
I don’t say that because I thought I would die, despite the fact that I could have (about 0.0007% of skydivers don’t make it). I say it because of the giant leap of faith I summoned from within to separate myself from the known and launch into the complete unknown.
I have never had the experience of freefall before that moment. Just like anyone alive has never experienced the moment of death before. Ever. And I can’t possibly describe to you what it feels like. But I do know jumping from a plane is a decision that requires complete and utter trust that everything will be OK. It demands strong faith and a truck load of courage to overcome natural fear. Dying, as we in palliative care know through observation, demands of us the same principles. And it helps that you are not alone, as I wasn’t alone. My tandem master, a young tattooed man named Mick, guided me and kept me safe. I put my trust into a complete stranger, as we ask our patients to do of us.
The soul midwives will tell you that for the spirit to leave the body, a great deal of energy is released as the two elements that have been together since before birth, work to separate. They say death, much like birth, isn’t a passive but very much an active process. We don’t have the right to assume it will be easy and painless. We have to work at it and maybe even practice. As I was rocked out of that little plane, I called on my semi-Buddhist beliefs with practised breathing techniques and repeated my mantra of “I can do this”. And then I surrendered myself to the nothingness and the power of gravity. I experienced this mindfully (no selfies for me) with awareness of every moment. At 195 kilometres per hour, that’s not an easy thing. Life really does flash before your eyes.
So, we don’t know what dying will be like, but it is something that we can prepare ourselves for. And, if freefalling is like dying, then I hope what comes after is an open parachute, and instead of the plummet to earth, then a gentle ascension into a peaceful and quiet sky.
Karen is a Clinical Nurse Specialist and Clinical Educator in palliative care based in Warkworth, New Zealand. She has a PGDip in PC and is particularly interested in ensuring delivery of equitable care to both Māori and rural communities. Karen is privileged as Tauiwi to belong to the Hospice Kaimahi Māori Roopu. She is an advocate of death literacy and death awareness as a Death Cafe facilitator and has built a ‘Before I Die’ wall. And sometimes she does crazy things like jump out of planes because life is all about collecting experiences.