A guide to allowing a gentle and meaningful death for our loved ones and for ourselves, from Joan Halifax
Exercise: How Do You Want to Die?
In teaching care of the dying, I often begin by asking questions that explore our stories around death, including the legacies we may have inherited from culture and family. Looking at our stories may reveal to us what we believe will happen when we are dying, and open new possibilities for us.
We begin with a very direct and plain question: “What is your worst-case scenario of how you will die?” The answer to this question lurks underneath the skin of our lives, subconsciously shaping many of the choices we make about how we lead them. In this powerful practice of self-inquiry, write it all down, freely and in detail - how, when, of what, with whom, and where you’ll die. Imagine your worst-case scenario. Take about five minutes to write from your most uncensored, uncorrected state of mind, and let all the unprescribed elements of your psyche emerge as you write.
When you are finished, ask yourself how you feel, how your body feels, and what emotions or sensations are coming up for you - and give yourself a few minutes to write down these responses as well. It is crucial at this point to practice honest self-observation. Then take another five minutes to answer a second question: “How do you really want to die?” Again, please write about this in as much detail as possible. What is your ideal time, place, and kind of death? Who will be there with you? And a second time, when you have finished, give some attention to what is happening in your body and mind, writing these reflections down as well.
If you can, do this exercise with someone else, so you can see how different your answers are. Your worst fears may well not be shared by others, and your ideas about an ideal death may not be someone else’s. My own answers to these questions have changed as time has passed. Years ago, I felt that the worst death would be a lingering one. Today I feel that it would be harder to die a senseless, violent death.
At a divinity school where I taught several classes on death and dying, one-third of the class answered that they wanted to die in their sleep. And in other settings where I have posed these questions, more people wanted to die alone and in peace than I would have guessed. Quite a few wanted to die in nature. Among the thousands of responses I have received to this question, only a few people said they wanted to die in a hospital, although that is in fact where most of us will die. And almost everyone wanted to die in some way that was fundamentally spiritual. A violent and random death was regarded as one of the worst possibilities. Dying painlessly and with spiritual support and a sense of meaning was considered to be the best of all possible worlds.
Finally, after exploring how you want to die, ask yourself a third question: “What are you willing to do to die the way you want to die?” We go through a lot to educate and train ourselves for a vocation; most of us invest a great deal of time in taking care of our bodies, and we usually devote energy to caring for our relationships. So now please ask yourself: What are you doing to prepare for the possibility of a sane and gentle death? And how can you open the possibility for the experience of deathless enlightenment at this moment and when you die?
Being With Death: Four Basic Practices for the Caregiver
No matter how busy you are, you can bring simple contemplative elements into your being-with-death practice that will help you fearlessly follow the dying person’s lead. Here are four basic practices to help you be with dying:
1. Share prayer
Sharing prayer or another contemplative practice with a dying person also serves the caregiver’s well-being. When you find yourself caught up in the events around you or in your own hope and fear, slow down. Even stop. Cultivate the habit of attending to your breath continually; use the breath to stabilize yourself.
2. Say a verse
You can also use words to generate a state of presence and self-compassion when you are with a dying person. For example, every line of the following verse is like medicine to me. I use it in my own practice, and share it with other caregivers and dying people. On the inhalation say to yourself, “Breathing in, I calm body and mind.” On the exhalation: “Breathing out, I let go.” Inhalation: “Dwelling in the present moment.” Exhalation: “This is the only moment.” I learned a version of this from the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh many years ago. It has been a good friend since.
3. Come to your senses
Another way to connect to the moment is to use your senses. Let them take you beyond your story into a bigger picture where you can follow the lead of the dying one and stay open and fearless. Look out the window at the sky for a moment. Listen attentively to the sounds in the room. Touch the dying person mindfully. Take a few sips of cool water. Breathe deeply and relax the tension in your body as you exhale. Remember why you are doing this work.
4. Practice motherly love
Tibetan Buddhists say that we have all been one another’s mother in a previous lifetime. Imagining every being as your mother isn’t always easy for many of us who have conflicted relationships with our mothers. But I can imagine a being who has given me and others life, protection, nourishment, and kindness. When I’m giving care to a dying person, I try both to give and receive kindness as if I were the dying one’s mother and to see the dying one as my mother, saying silently to myself, “Now it is time for me to repay the great kindness of all motherly beings.” Thinking of all beings with motherly love is a good reference point when I have fallen into automatic behavior, am feeling alienated, or am having trouble opening my heart.
Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist priest who heads the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico (http://www.upaya.org). Her new book, Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, will be published by Shambhala Publications. Read her guided breath meditation on being with dying exclusively here on tricycle.com
Image 1: Offshore Breeze, 2002
Image 2: John's Room, 1998
Image 3: Early September Evening, 2002
© PETER C. JONES