not all who wander are lost.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Living and Dying

I cannot stress enough the importance of reading "The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche. We are so afraid of death, and we handle it with so much fear and so little grace. I think about death a lot anymore. I meditate on it and reflect back to my intimate experience with it, watching my dad slowly leave. Sogyal Rinpoche says that "There is no greater gift of charity you can give than helping a person to die well". And yes, there is such a thing as "dying well". Given the right care, 98 percent of patients can have a peaceful death. I so wish that I had read this book before my experience, but all I can do now is to apply my knowledge to future encounters, and to share it with all of you- so that we can become a more educated, compassionate caregiver. This is a book that isn't just about dying, but as a title states, it's about LIVING.

I have been reading this book for a year now, and I'm still only half way through. Some days I read a paragraph and I will sit with those few sentences for several weeks. Yesterday I finally got to Part Two: Dying. Chapter 11 is "Heart Advice on Helping the Dying". Needless to say, I have been quite weepy. This chapter helped me so much to understand the transition that my dad was moving through, and reading this has helped me to move through some serious grief and regret that I have been holding in my heart. I must share:

"When the dying person is finally communicating his or her most private feelings, do not interrupt, deny or diminish what the person is saying. The terminally ill or dying are in the most vulnerable situation of their lives and you will need all your skill and resources of sensitivity, and warmth, and loving compassion to enable them to reveal themselves. Learn to listen, and learn to receive in silence: an open, calm silence that makes the other person feel accepted.

No one wishes to be "rescued" with someone else's beliefs. Remember your task is not to convert anyone to anything, but to help the person in front of you get in touch with his or her own strength, confidence, faith and spirituality, whatever that may be. People will die as they have lived, as themselves.

People who are very sick long to be you had. A great deal of consolation can be given simply by touching their hands, looking into their eyes, gently massaging them or holding them in your arms, or breathing in the same rhythm gently with them. The body has it's own language of love: use it fearlessly.

Often we forget that the dying are losing their whole world: their house, their job, their relationships, their body, their mind- they're losing everything. All the losses we could possibly experience in life are joined together in one overwhelming loss when we die, so how could anyone dying not be sometimes sad, sometimes panicked, sometimes angry? Don't try to be too wise; don't always try to search for something profound to say. Just be there as fully as you can.

When you come to try and help the dying, you will need to examine your every reaction, since your reactions will be reflected in those of the person dying and will contribute a great deal to their help or detriment. Looking at your fears honestly will also help you in your own journey to maturity. Being aware of your own fears about dying will help you immeasurably to be aware of the fears of the dying person. Just imagine deeply what those might be: fear of increasing, uncontrolled pain, fear of suffering, fear of indignity, fear of dependence, fears that the lives we have led have been meaningless, fear of separation from all we love, fear of losing control, fear of losing respect; perhaps our greatest fear of all is of fear itself, which grows more and more powerful the more we evade it.


If you are attached and cling to the dying person, you can bring them a lot of unnecessary heartache and make it very hard for the person to let go and die peacefully.

Christine Longaker discovered that for such a person to be able to let go and die peacefully they need to hear two explicit verbal assurances from loved ones. First, they must give the person permission to die, and second they must reassure the person they will be all right after he or she is gone, and there is no need to worry about them. "I am here with you and I love you. You are dying, and that is completely natural; it happens to everyone. I wish you could stay here with me, but I don't want you to suffer any more. The time we have had together has been enough, and I shall always cherish it. Please now don't hold onto life any longer. Let go. I give you my full and heartfelt permission to die. You are not alone, now or ever, you have all my love."

(Many people who appear to be unconscious can in fact perceive what is going on. My mom have these exact verbal assurances to my Dad when he was unconscious, and he died within the hour.)

Some families resist letting their loved ones go, thinking that to do so is betrayal, and a sign that they don't love them enough. "Imagine that you are standing on the deck of an ocean liner, about to set sail. You look back on the shore and see all your family and friends waving goodbye. You have no choice about leaving, and the ship is already moving away. How would you want the people you loved to be saying goodbye to you? What would help you most on your journey?"


God bless my Mom for her strength and compassion, Hospice for helping this peaceful transition at home, and my Dad for holding on for us until -we- were able to finally let him go.


  1. These words are so beautiful. And I'm inspired to finally read this book - I work in hospice and I guess I've been avoiding it. What you write here is so true. I hope you are well.

  2. You and your mom were wonderful examples of how to graciously help a person transition to the next stage of life. You have inspired me to read the book. Thank you.
    xoxo mermom