Living With Dying articles

Creating an environment for a peaceful death

By Leah Carey
May 10, 2016

The Shambhalians we spoke with – Bill Brauer, Gerry Haase, Sara Demetry and Merle Thompson – talked extensively about how they help a person prepare for death and how they ease the transition.

There is a belief in Buddhism that “the just-now dead is still able to hear,” said Bill. “This has been part of this tradition for thousands of years and now western medical science is saying that there’s real evidence of that.”

“The senses shut down sequentially, not all at once,” confirmed Gerry.

This leads to practices and beliefs about the moments just preceding and just after death.

The environment of death

“The energy at the time of death, if it’s peaceful, if the person is not upset or angry, and the environment supports that, is really important for the transition, for the letting go,” explained Gerry. “It’s said the worst thing is to die angry … It’s just not going to be helpful. So if people are overly distraught, and that could be a grieving family member who is just wailing, we would try to calm that person down and say, ‘It might be better for you to come back later. For the dying person’s peace of mind.’”

“And that’s the part of why the emotional relative has been asked, traditionally, to either get more grounded or to wait,” continued Bill. “Because the notion is that after I’ve died, and then someone very close to me is saying, ‘No, no, no, don’t go!’ That’s confusing to me. I’m saying, I should come back but I can’t come back because there’s no coming back because I’m dead now. But I haven’t completely dissolved, so that transition needs to be respected.”

After a moment Bill continued, “Not that we don’t cry our hearts out at our loved ones. But at that moment, we try to have the environment for the person that just died … And we’ll even say to them, Mary you have died. And we’ll say that more than once, more than twice. You’re dead now, let go. And then just keep that environment quiet and spacious and sane and loving and open.”

“And not clinging to that person,” Sara added.

The group told a story of an early member who was dying. The woman’s mother was Tibetan trained and well-versed in the passage of death.

“She was in the dying stages. Comatose,” Gerry said. “[The mother] said, ‘Now Ruby, you have work to do.’ She really talked to her like a mom. ‘So remember your practice, now is the time to do it’.”

Sara said that the Shambhala focus on “now-ness” is important when ushering someone through their last days and moments on earth.

“We need to stay uplifted ourselves, to not lose our minds, because it’s a difficult situation,” she said. “It could be a time when there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of activity, a lot of talking. There could even be drama. And in a sense, I think most of us have training in how to hold and be. So there’s a sense that we’re being and we might be sitting at the bedside and being with someone without much talk. Or maybe there’s talk, maybe there’s not, but there’s a sense of being with that person. And there for that person and for the situation.”

Visions of death

With so much attention placed on death in the Shambhala tradition, many members think about their own ideal scenarios for the end of their life.

“I had a situation of three deaths right in a row,” said Bill, referring to being with two Shambhalians and his father-in-law as they died, all within a six month period. “All of a sudden I had this new avocation. What happened for me is – I told my wife this – I started watching and being there with all that death, thinking: I can do this. I can do this.”

He said it helped him feel somehow “closer” to the idea of death. “It demystifies it. What happens after I take my last breath? I still don’t know. But just watching people who, through no choice of their own, are now going through it – one then another, then another – I thought, I can do this.”

As for his own passing? Bill said that his ideal would be to remain conscious and lucid right to the end. “That’s asking a lot!” he joked.

But he remembers one comment from his first teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “He was talking about the practice of meditation. Going out, going in, going out, going in. He said, that last breath – that should be a practice breath.”

Sara said that she has similar hopes for her ending. “I hope that whatever the circumstances, I can be awake for it. That I can be brave and in touch with everything I’m feeling about it. And moving into it with all my heart.”

Merle’s thoughts turned to how she will behave in her final days. “I just hope that my mind is clear. That there’s an awakeness. And I hope that I’m not harmful to anybody else. I hope I have enough alertness and sensitivity so that I could still be there with them. And I’d just like to be known as someone who hasn’t created harm for anybody.”

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