Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying

Conversation with Phakchok Rinpoche on Grief and Guilt

Our Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying continued their conversation with Phakchok Rinpoche in New York. In this section, our team members discuss grief and guilt. How we can best help those who are going through the grieving process? In the midst of caring, grief and guilt can arise, and many other emotions may follow. Here’s some advice on common issues.

Grief and Guilt Contribute to Family Tensions

Kevin Gormley raises the issue of family dynamics around the grief process.

For example, one sibling may have cared for a dying person very actively, for years—while another family member lives far away and is unable to be there so often. These situations can cause a lot of guilt and frustration to arise–and we may also witness issues such as greed. But, if the person is actively dying, these tensions can be very strong in the room. How do we, as caregivers, work with family in these circumstances?

Phakchok Rinpoche says that we need to remember we can’t fix everything. We can only give advice to the caregiver. So,if we are the caregivers ourselves, we need to remember “right now is not the time”. The caregiver needs to remind herself, or himself, repeating like a mantra that “right now is not the time” to deal with family tensions. We cannot fix an entire family, but as caregivers ourselves, we can train ourselves to put the dying person first. We want to help that person die nicely, without feeling tension, so regardless of what is happening, we make that our priority.

Remember that the person who dies is aware of what is happening around them—their consciousness actually expands beyond their physical skin. So we as caregivers, should reassure the person who has died. It’s very important to keep a pure atmosphere in the presence of a dying person—even if we don’t know all the details of what to do, having compassion and wishing them well is so meaningful. Rinpoche shares a story of a young monk whose small thought of compassion for a dying man was more beneficial than the prayers of so-called experts. So from this story we can reflect that keeping our focus and our intention pure are very crucial points.

After Death: How Does the Caregiver Deal With Loss of Identity?

Often in situations of long-term care-giving, the caretaker strongly identifies with their active role. And after death occurs, suddenly, they may feel lost. All their time and energy has been dedicated to caring—so now what to do? Rinpoche sees this loss of role as simply breaking a habit. As a spiritual practitioner, you should take a short retreat.

Or, if you’re not spiritual, then take a break and be with friends or family—give yourself some change of pace. And it’s good to celebrate your own work—think that you did a great thing to help a person and to allow them to die nicely. Give yourself a present or a gift—take a break! Don’t feel guilty—you did your best and you can’t prevent death. And remember that the person you cared for would want you to be happy. Don’t stress yourself additionally by making the identity so solid. Just take a nice break.

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.