Conversation: Helping Others Prepare for Death
In July, 2018, Samye Institute recorded a series of conversations on the topic of Noble Living, Noble Caring and Noble Dying. This project came about from the questions we heard from many sangha members about coming to terms with impermanence—acknowledging the reality of our human condition and our eventual death. In these conversations with Tulku Migmar, Tsunma Jamyang, and Andrea Sherman, we explore a wide variety of issues that we hope will give us all much to contemplate and work with in our own lives.
Andrea Sherman here guides the conversation by asking questions that we have heard from many people in very different life situations. We encourage you to explore the conversations and to post your own questions and comments in the forum. We have a team of people working on this project and they will respond to your questions!
In this conversation, the focus turns to Noble Caring—how we can help others prepare for death.
Caregiving When People Are Not Buddhist Practitioners
Andrea asks a common question: as caregivers, if we are Buddhist how do we best care for someone who is not? Then what practice do you do—what is the most helpful approach?
Tulku responds that this depends upon the person—some people may not practice themselves, but are open to the idea of people helping them through the death process. Good intention and motivation to help is the most powerful gift we can give. And if we don’t know spiritual people, at least we can invite the family to be with the dying person while holding a peaceful, positive mind. Wishing people a peaceful and calm death is very important–if people who have strong connections to the dying person can be calm and relaxed in their own minds–then those wishes bring great benefit.
Ani J comments on how the state of mind when they are leaving. She often reminds families of whose death it is. Families sometimes get confused and forget it is not their death. And everyone has done virtuous things—and this is the time to reflect on those virtues. Very often the ability of speech gets lost, and mindfulness practice can be a wonderful way to sit without words. Sometimes that is a wonderful support for the person dying, and to help the family feel they are supporting the person. Even without words. she often gathers the family and leads a guided meditation.
Andrea notes that the idea that we are all interdependent is important in the context of caregiving. We see that there is a constellation of care, where we are interdependently caring for a person and also for each other.
Tulku Migmar reminds us that in life, everything is connected to each other. As Buddhists, we believe that all sentient beings have been our own mother. So, first, we remember that as a practitioner, we are connected to this person we are caring for. We are all connected to each other. Then you can do something, because you
have a connection, you can do prayers, to help. We are each other connected.
Ani J reminds us that when caring for others, we experience a self-mirroring mystery. We are also looking at our own passing and feeling, it is a journey that we do together.
Healthcare Team in Caregiving
Ani J reminds us to include and interact skillfully with the healthcare team. Often we see the team as invisible during a process of death.
From a spiritual perspective, we often don’t connect with the team that is taking care of the dying person day in and day out. These beings are great bodhisattvas. And they also may experience moral distress and empathy fatigue. So, when we are careful about how we treat them, this directly impacts the person who is dying because it can be difficult or helped by practitioner. We can take some time to appreciate them—let the team know they are seen and are important. And we can share teachings on mindfulness with the healthcare team if they are receptive—that can be a big gift.
Interdependence, Interbeing, and Awareness
The space is the interbeing, the space between people—this physical space—you can touch it, it is shared space, so it’s good to keep all the others in the room in mind at the bedside. It’s your interbeing that you are sharing. Take a moment to ground yourself. And a good practice is that before you enter the room of someone you are caring for—stop and be present before you step into the room.
That is helpful. Stop. Take a moment and see what is living in the room.
What is the energy—are there people weeping at the bedside? Encourage people that are grieving to step out of the room. The bedside is a special, sacred place: there is a recently published book that expresses this well: Awake at the Bedside—and that’s an attitude we should keep as our goal.