The Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy often compared the body to a cage, the soul as the captive bird. Sometimes the cage door might open just a little – a minor illness – and the soul bird would fly away; other times the cage door could be wide open – a grave illness – but the soul bird would stubbornly remain. My sister’s recent passing proved the truth of this. The cage door was wide open in her last days, and medical people predicted her departure was only hours away. But the bird defied these forecasts and lingered in the cage for another full week, as though hungry to gather as much from its earth experience as possible.

We sat by her bedside in my other sister’s house and told stories, talked about meditation, spiritual masters, reincarnation, conscious dying, reminiscences – my father had shrewdly and humorously called this ‘cramming for finals’, the soul and heart and mind soaking up as much as possible in preparation for the onward mystic journey. It was a spiritual intensive, the only thing to interest my sister in her last days. I was reminded of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a Buddhist text read to departing souls, guiding them on through the ‘bardos’, the other layers and dimensions of life through which the departing soul would travel.

Later, after her breathing had ceased and the medical requirements confirming this had been met, and after a day of her families farewells and tears, food brought by solicitous neighbors, the sharing of things she had left behind, introspective walks in the garden, and quiet time alone again with the still form of a sister we had all loved, we brought her coffin from a neighbor’s garage and in the back garden lowered her into her small blue casket. There she lay, her blue eyes closed, a ceremonial red flower clasped in her hands. It was wrenching and sad to know we would never see her again.

We drove her simple sky-blue coffin out to a country crematorium and left her there. In a matter of hours she would return to the earth and the sky, her ashes later scattered in the garden, the soul bird freed at last from the broken cage. Although there is no death, this knowledge seldom consoles us. To be human is to grieve, and in the death of those close to us we seem somehow to have also lost a part of ourselves. Our affections bring us to life, bring out the best in us, and we become more truly and deeply ourselves when our sleeping hearts are awoken and touched by love.