Making Peace With Death During Life
By Leah Carey
May 10, 2016
Today marks the beginning of a year-long exploration of how we, as individuals and as a community, can help our loved ones to “die well.”
It is a broad and a challenging subject, and over the next year we will hear a wide variety of voices looking at it from many different angles. We hope that you will add your voice to the conversation (more on that below).
Because death can be such a difficult topic for many to consider, let alone talk about, we’re starting today with a group who face death head-on. They are a community who not only discuss death regularly, they actively support each other through the death process.
Shambhala is best known locally thanks to Karme Choling Meditation Center in Barnet, and there are many “Shambhalians” all around the Northeast Kingdom, according to member Bill Brauer.
“We live up and down the hills and valleys here,” Bill said. “As members die, we organize ourselves in care teams … We bring into play our view of what this dying person’s experience is and how we can help them with it.”
But the consideration of death begins long before they gather in a dying member’s living room.
Discussions of death
“Part of our lifelong practice is you talk openly – and a lot – about death,” Bill explained. “It clears the air. We’re going to die, and we have a lot of times when we visit that fact.”
In fact, one of the most widely recognized texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“It says that the transition at the moment of death is just that – purely a transition in which the consciousness leaves the body,” said Shambhalian Gerry Haase.
International Shambhala President Richard Reoch published a column in the Shambhala Times in 2012 encouraging members to keep their own “death book.”
“It’s a binder with a big yellow cover with big, bold black letters that says DEATH,” said Bill. “You open it up and it’s everything you need to know for Richard. All the contacts, all the advanced directives, all the insurance, the will, all the people to call. We should all get it done – we should each have our death book.”
Speaking with the dying
“We’re very direct and we talk directly with the dying person and say, ‘You’re dying,’” Bill said. “If you come and visit me and I look like crap, you don’t say, ‘Bill you look so good today!’ I don’t look good – I’m jaundiced and puffy and I’m dying!”
Recently the group ushered 64-year-old Michael [for the privacy of the deceased, no last names were used] through his final days with a very aggressive cancer.
“Part of our tradition is that it’s important to know that you have died so you can let go,” explained Bill. “We talked about it all the time with Michael: You’re dying, you’re dying, you’re dying. Because it was happening very fast and it was consuming him and we didn’t want him to be confused … You’re dead now, so don’t try to be alive.”
Up until that final moment, though, Shambhalians view the person as fully alive, rather than partially dead.
“Our understanding is that until that person is dead, that person is alive. So we treat that as a living person and a living situation, with all the dignity that comes with being a living person,” said Bill. “We tell ourselves as we’re dying, ‘You’re dying. You’re losing control of your body. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you clean and dry.’ That’s often a point of embarrassment when they start to lose control of their bodies. Now they have to be taken care of that way and have their bodies cleaned up. We tell them, ‘That’s natural. It’s okay, you just let go. Because you’re dying.’ So that they don’t get confused – Oh, that’s right, I’m dying.”
The care team
“When one of us gets sick, we meet in each other’s homes and say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do here?’” said Bill.
“We’re a very tight-knit community and a caring community. And this kind of continuous circle of care when the need arises is part of what we just naturally do,” explained Gerry. “It’s important to listen. You can’t just give the same care to everybody. They don’t all want the same care.”
One person generally acts as the point person between the family and the community, as well as coordinating with any agencies – like hospice – that may be involved. Shambhalian Sara Demetry often fills that role.
“Maybe it’s meals. Maybe it’s twice a day someone coming in and checking on the person. Or transportation to doctors or chemotherapy,” Sara said. “It’s not always about dying. It’s also about living. And having quality life, as quality as possible, in whatever time the person has left.”
Because death is seen as part of their on-going spiritual practice, frequently community members support the dying person in continuing whatever practice is most meaningful to them.
As Michael prepared to die, he came to Bill with one question. “He asked, ‘Would you go with me through this?’ I said, ‘I’ll go right up to the gate. Then you’re going to have go that next step.’”
Sara and Merle Thompson took overnight shifts so Michael’s wife could rest.
“I ended up being there when he died,” Sara said. “It was really intense and powerful and emotional. I felt like it was a teaching for me in bravery.”
Sara said that as one of the younger members of the core group, at age 51, part of her job is to help the community elders through their transitions.
“I really believe that’s part of my purpose for being here,” she said. “So I feel like I need to wrap my heart and my mind around this ‘death’ thing. Because I’m going to have to grieve a lot.”
The Shambhalians talk more about creating a peaceful environment for death and their visions for their own passages in an online exclusive.
A Graceful Goodbye
Personal reflections from Leah
The seed for this series was planted in the final 36 hours of my mother’s life, although it took me another couple months to recognize it.
In those final hours, her lungs were still breathing and her heart was still pumping blood, but her spirit was no longer looking through her eyes or speaking through her mouth.
She appeared to be suffering, moaning and thrashing. It was 3 a.m. when I Googled, “How do I help my loved one to die?”
I was distressed to find that, in the vastness of the Internet, there wasn’t a lot of helpful information to be found.
It has been almost five months – it feels like the blink of an eye or an eternity, depending on the moment – and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on that question.
She did not have the peaceful passing that I wanted for her. What could I have done differently? Is there anything I could have done better? How could I have made my mother’s passage from this world a more comfortable, less distressing experience?
The answer I’ve come to is this: nothing. There is not a thing I could have done to change her experience.
But there is a lot I could have done to change my experience of her death.
If I’d heard nurse Christina Courville explaining a different way to view “suffering” … or about the “unraveling” of the spirit from the body from music thanatologist Linda Schneck … or about the simple importance of our presence from North Country Hospice founder Carole Anne Gillis …
If I had heard these voices before my mother’s death, perhaps I would have been less scared as she made her transition from this world to the next. And in turn, I might have provided a more calm and peaceful environment in which she made her final passage.
Over the next year in the Living With Dying series, you will hear all of these voices and many more. I hope that they will lead you in an exploration of your understanding of death, so that when the final moments come – whether for you or a loved one – you may find your own measure of peace.