As Queen Isabella so eloquently said in the movie Braveheart, “Death comes to us all.” Over the summer I read several books on Buddhism. On my journey of growth I decided to meander down a path towards learning more about Buddhism (religion, philosophy and way of life). Currently, I’m reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. The book sends several powerful messages. The first message, death is an inevitable absolute that will indeed happen to each of us and no one can escape it. In the West, we go to great lengths to avoid, dance around, or ignore the reality of death. Which is silly, if you think about it. In the Buddhist tradition is it said that: Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons : (1) it is only by recognizing how precious and how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and (2) by understanding the death process and familiarizing ourself with it, we can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth.* Now, regardless if you believe in rebirth or not, the part about removing fear at the time of death sounds pretty good to me. And if I can achieve that for myself as well as help loved ones, I’m on board!
The second half of the book especially focuses on being with loved ones during the moments before as well as at the time of death, and how to best help them (and you) through the process. One needn’t be Buddhist to find this information extremely insightful, graceful and indeed helpful. As a daughter who witnessed her mother’s death, I would have found these teachings comforting as well as useful. I strongly encourage everyone to seek the invaluable wisdom from this book.
My personal inspiration for obtaining this knowledge is, if I am graced with the opportunity to be present at the death of a loved one, that I may extend unwavering compassion and unconditional love. I wish to be a loving presence and create a supportive atmosphere for their last moments. My desire is that I am strong in the face of losing someone dear to me and that I will have the poise to not let my feelings override my commitment to the other person. (IE: not make someone’s death about me.) Who would not want to do this for someone they care for? While this may sound simple and perhaps obvious, there are steps to take and even a (Buddhist) protocol if you will.
In the West, we rush the process of death and lack of a proper environment for the dying. Certain circumstances (like my mothers) will not warrant the luxury of dying at home. However, home is the ideal place to pass on. Surrounded by the familiar, in one’s own clothes, with family, in one’s own bed, and in one’s most cherished place. The key is to make the environment as free from distraction, negativity, and additional nonsense as possible. Promote a space of tranquil peace, unconditional love and support, as well as quiet and zen like. Create a place to inspire spiritual practice (whatever the method and religion) for the dying as well as the living – this is critical!
If a hospital is the only option, and your loved one is close to death, it’s a good idea to ask the hospital staff not to disturb them and to stop taking tests. Request a private room, silence the machines, and request a do not resuscitate from the staff, if that is the patients wish or the wish of the family. Something we don’t often think about, is while resuscitating someone may mean we get more time with them, we must consider the cost to the patient. It’s very traumatic and can severely disrupt their mental, physical and spiritual peace. It’s advised not to hang on needlessly to someone whose death is becoming more and more imminent.
I found it interesting that it’s suggested you indeed tell the person they are dying (often they already know). Of course, this is not signing their death warrant if they miraculously recover. But it helps to start them down the path towards preparing for death in addition to evoking their own spiritual practice.
One should also give the loved one permission to die. Often they are hanging on, struggling and fighting because they see, hear, sense or know how troubled you are over their circumstance. This unnecessary suffering causes them much unrest and pain during a time when they should be concentrating on their own peace, and journey beyond. It’s helpful to comfort them, reassure them you will be alright, you love them and it’s ok for them to go. As hard as this is (for you) it’s vital they die in peace and without any kind of suffering – mental, physical or spiritual.
It’s also important to note, that the unconscious are possibly far more aware than we realize. Communication, feelings and attitudes of others in the room, and environment play a significant role in the wellbeing of the patient.
Buddhists say that the most important moment of our lives is the moment of death. In simple terms, one’s afterlife is dependent on your past actions (positive and negative – thoughts, words and deeds), and the resulting karma of those actions. It is also possible to achieve enlightenment at the time of death, some sources say it’s guaranteed, if even on a small scale. And this is due to our inherent Buddha nature, in each and every one of us. This is largely appealing to me because I was raised Episcopalian and taught through Christianity that we are all sinners and must atone for our sins (which is also true to some extent). Focusing on our inner Buddha nature, tells me that I too am capable of enlightenment. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
One of the great points mentioned in the book is about when we have a “bad” day. Perhaps we’ve been fired from our job. Or maybe we’ve suffered a divorce or a break-up. Consider that while this is a period of suffering for you, the dying lose everything in one fell swoop. Their home, job, loved ones, body, money, health, all they hold dear – All At Once! For me, that certainly puts things in perspective.
While I have yet to seriously sit down and meditate on death, I figure, I’m reading a great deal about it and therefore it’s forced me to consider my own death as well as the death of my most dearest love, my husband. If the Fates choose him before me and I am granted the opportunity to be at his side, I want my last act as his wife and partner of this life to be one of beautiful compassion, absolute tenderness and fearless devotion.
* Sources http://buddhanet.net/deathtib.htm
Sogyal Rinpoche also has three audiobooks available on iTunes.