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How Do You Want to Die?
All the passages below are taken from the book, “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death” by Joan Halifax. It was published in 2008.
I GREW UP in the South, and one of the people I was closest to as a girl was my grandmother. I loved spending summers with her in Savannah, where she worked as a sculptor and artist, carving tombstones for local people. She was a remarkable village woman who often served her community as someone comfortable around illness and death, someone who would sit with dying friends.
And yet when she herself became ill, her own family could not offer her the same compassionate presence. My parents were good people, but like others of their social class at the time, they had no preparation for being with her as she experienced her final days. When my grandmother suffered first from cancer and then had a stroke, she was put into a nursing home and then left largely alone. And her death was long and hard.
This was in the early sixties, when the medical establishment treated dying, like giving birth, as an illness. Death was usually “handled” in a clinical setting outside the home. I visited my grandmother in a plain and cavernous room in the nursing home, a room filled with beds of people who had all been unwittingly abandoned by their kin—and I can never forget hearing her beg my father to let her die, to help her die. She needed us to be present for her, and we withdrew in the face of her suffering.
When she finally died, I felt deep ambivalence, sorrow, and relief. I looked into her coffin in the funeral home and saw that the terrible frustration that had marked her features was now gone. She seemed at last at peace. As I stood looking at her gentle face, I realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. At that moment, I made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.
Although I had been raised as a Protestant, I turned to Buddhism not long after my grandmother’s death. Its teachings put my youthful suffering into perspective, and the message of the Buddha was clear and direct—freedom from suffering lies within suffering itself, and it is up to each individual to find his or her own way. But Buddhism also suggests a path through our alienation and toward freedom. The Buddha taught that we should practice helping others while cultivating deep concentration, compassion, and wisdom. He further taught that enlightenment is not a mystical, transcendent experience but an ongoing process, calling for three fundamental qualities: fearlessness, intimacy, and transparency; and that suffering diminishes when confusion and fear change into openness and strength.
In my twenties, I entered “the cave of the blue dragon,” the dark space inside where the bilge of my short life had accumulated.1 I knew instinctively that I had to realize healing directly through my own experience, that my habitual relationship to anguish could be resolved only by facing it fully. I felt that befriending the night was an assignment for survival, and knew intuitively that thinking about it would not be of much help. I had to practice with it—that is, I had to sit still and look within for my natural wisdom to show itself.
I also understood through the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War that the rest of the world suffers as well. My bones told me that Buddhist teachings and practices might be the basis for working with and transforming the experience of alienation, both personal and social, so a commitment to social action began to grow strong roots inside me. I found I could put my own difficulties into perspective through working with those whose problems were more difficult than mine.
My grandmother’s death guided me into practicing medical anthropology in a big urban hospital in Dade County, Florida. Dying became a teacher for me, as I witnessed again and again how spiritual and psychological issues leap into sharp focus for those facing death. I discovered caregiving as a path, and as a school for unlearning the patterns of resistance so embedded in me and in my culture. Giving care, I learned, also enjoins us to be still, let go, listen, and be open to the unknown.
One thing that continually concerned me was the marginalization of people who were dying, the fear and loneliness that dying people experienced, and the shame and guilt that touched physicians, nurses, dying people, and families as the waves of death overtook life. I sensed that spiritual care could reduce fear, stress, the need for certain medications and expensive interventions, lawsuits, and the time doctors and nurses must spend reassuring people, as well as benefit professional and family caregivers, helping them to come to terms with suffering, death, loss, grief, and meaning.
As I worked with dying people, caregivers, and others experiencing catastrophe, I practiced meditation to give my life a strong spine of practice, and an open heart from which I could see beyond what I thought I knew. I was grateful to find that Buddhism offers many practices and insights for working skillfully and compassionately with suffering, pain, dying, failure, loss, and grief—the stuff of what St. John of the Cross has called “the lucky dark.”2 That great Christian saint recognized that suffering can be fortunate because, without it, there is no possibility for maturation. For years the lucky dark has been the atmosphere that lends clarity to my life, a life that had seen death as an enemy, but was to discover death as a teacher and guide.
As a young anthropologist, I further explored death through studying the archeological record of human history. Through the millennia and across cultures, the fact of death has evoked fear and transcendence, practicality and spirituality. Neolithic gravesites and the cave paintings of Paleolithic peoples capture the mystery through bones, stones, bodies curled like fetuses, and images of death and trance on cave walls.
Even today, whether people live close to the earth or in high-rise apartments, death is a deep spring. For many of us, this spring has been parched of its mystery. And yet we have an intuition that a fragment of eternity within us is liberated at the time of death. This intuition calls us to bear witness—to apprehend a part of ourselves, which has perhaps been hidden and silent.
As death draws near, a dying person may hear a still small voice inviting her to freedom. Sitting with the dying, sitting still in meditation, and sitting at the edge of cultures different from my own, I have also encountered that still small voice. It is there to speak to us all, if we can give it enough silence to be heard.
How Do You Want to Die?
A few years ago, a dying friend read me some lines from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. They made me smile. Virtuous King Yudhistara (the son of Yama, the Lord of Death) is asked, “What is the most wondrous thing in the world?” And Yudhistara replies, “The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t believe it can happen to us.”3
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 help us be taught by 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, I ask you to write it all down, freely and in detail (telling how, when, of what, with whom, and where), about the worst death you can imagine for yourself. Write from your most uncensored, uncorrected state of mind, and let all the unprescribed elements of your psyche emerge as you write. Take about five minutes for this.
When you are finished, ask yourself how you feel, how your body feels, and what is coming up for you—and write down these responses as well. It is crucial at this point to practice honest self-observation. What is your body telling you? Give yourself a few minutes to write down how imagining this worst-case death makes you feel.
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. Amazingly, your worst fears might well not be shared by others, and your ideas about an ideal death might 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. A lingering death might give me the time to prepare myself more fully. In addition, in my dying I might be of some use to others.
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 or nursing home, although that is in fact where many 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 you are doing to prepare for the possibility of a sane and gentle death. And how can you open up the possibility for the experience of deathless enlightenment both at this moment and when you die? [3-8]
1. John Daido Loori, Mountain Record of Zen Talks (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1988), 21.
2. San Juan de la Cruz, “The Dark Night,” in The Poems of St. John of the Cross, trans. John Frederick Nims (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 19.
3. Jane Polden, Regeneration: Journey through the Mid-Life Crisis (New York: Continuum, 2002).
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