Thoughts for accompanying the end of life
The current relentless pandemic and the multiple disruptions going on around the world naturally bring into focus the fragility of our lives. So it seems appropriate to think about some difficult situations that we all face sooner or later, or may already be facing at present, in the understanding that each situation is different and that when dealing with great stress, loss or tragedy there are no easy answers.
When we accompany someone who is very sick, afflicted by the disabilities of extreme old age, or coming to the end of their life, there are so many anxieties and emotions that come up. If we have been providing long term care, we may already be worn out by exhaustion and the stress of the daily physical and psychological challenges involved. But, even if we are not the hands-on carer, witnessing the decline of a loved one can be an overwhelming experience.
We feel a primary concern for the person who is suffering or who is about to leave. But we may also be panicked by our own suffering, and our own feelings of confusion or fear.
When we are caught up in our own panic everything becomes tighter and the fear actually increases. It can be useful to spend a quiet moment listening to one’s fears, one’s anxieties about the future, and even thoughts that we feel we should not be having, feelings of guilt, resentment or anger. We can accept them as a natural part of the terrain we are navigating. Settling our mind in that acceptance, we fill our hearts with love and compassion, for ourselves and for all those everywhere who are going through similar emotions.
Being friendly to oneself, and accepting one’s own shortcomings as natural, is an important step. If we are torn by inner conflict we will be less supportive to others.We may need support ourselves and that is OK.
Our feelings of fragility are an essential part of who we are as a human being. The very sensitivity that experiences difficult emotions is at the same time the basis of our fundamental tenderness which can be a huge resource for ourselves and others. If we can release the tension into a feeling of love, especially if that love can become very vast, even universal, going out to everyone facing impossible challenges everywhere, then our fears and worries take a different perspective.
One might think that the practice of altruistic love is a sort of self-denial: trying to forget oneself and enslaving oneself to the needs of others. The reality is quite different. When we manage to push back the limits of our love we can get in touch with the innate power of our good heart. This can become an ongoing contemplative experience when we give ourselves the space to meditate on love in its simplest sense, allowing our gentle heart to reveal itself and getting used to a sense of basic kindness in which we ourselves and others are naturally included. Of course to develop this kind of harmonious attitude we need to revisit that sense of kindness as often as possible, as a quiet meditation and in all kinds of circumstances. Then it becomes an inner strength that radiates happiness and calm to others around us but also creates an internal sense of peace for ourselves.
When someone is in the last phase of their life, we would love to be supportive in the best possible way, but due to multiple circumstances, what is possible may well be far from ideal.
Ideally, we should try to create a calm and reassuring environment around the person who is seriously ill or about to leave. Helping them to find a balance between the will to go on living and the moment when they need to let go so that they can leave peacefully is not easy. Nevertheless, in all circumstances our stability and our love can in themselves be a very valuable support. We can be truly attentive, truly there. Even if there is nothing we can physically do, our inner stability and love will be a support for patients and carers alike.
If possible we should try to maintain a calm, supportive and spacious atmosphere at the end, even after the moment of clinical death. If we can be inspired by the gravity of the moment to find a wellspring of reassuring calm in ourselves, it will be enormously beneficial to everyone. But doing the best one can with a good heart is already wonderful.
If we are unable to accompany our relatives because they are in isolation or too far away, what can we do? We can think of them; perhaps we can speak to them by telephone. We can communicate with the family in a positive way. Even many non-religious people feel the instinct at moments like this to pray. But how do we pray? It's important to know that praying is an internal experience and the way we experience it is important. We may feel that we are praying for a particular person but we too are certainly Included. And the more we can stretch the scope of our prayer the more meaningful it becomes. When we pray thinking of our loved one we can think of all the loved ones and of other people all over the world. That way we are expanding the capacities of our altruistic mind.
The wisdom we need to deal with the major challenges we encounter is the same as the intelligence and sensitivity we need to deal with the basic business of being in this world, of wisely handling our relationships with others and, above all, our relationship with ourselves.
Imagine Clarity's meditations offer structured methods for stabilizing the mind and developing the inner strength, clarity and compassion that will enable us to deal with all kinds of situations. Offering oneself ten or twenty minutes of calm each day can make a fundamental difference.
However, dramatic moments can occur unexpectedly and we may feel unprepared to deal with them. We will need to give ourselves a little space, to accept our emotions and develop a compassion in which we are included. Caring mindfulness is first taking care of our own mind to be able to care for others.
In fact, such situations can awaken inner resources that we would never have imagined we had. If we look carefully, we might even be aware that the person we are accompanying and supporting is giving us a huge gift. From the point of view of training our mind, a situation that touches us so deeply sweeps away our superficial daily concerns, leaving room for a deeper understanding of the fundamentals.
Of course, an untimely death is a terrible thing, and even the peaceful death of an extremely elderly person can be a heart-breaking loss for those who remain. If we have cared for someone for many years, their absence will certainly be felt.
Our love for our relative or friend is the vital spark of our ability to love. If we allow it to mature we can expand the tender sensitivity we feel into the beautiful sensitivity of a good heart. The departure of a loved one is also an important step in preparing for the inevitable moment when we too must depart.
For a comprehensive guide to Imagine Clarity's meditations for developing love and compassion see At the heart of healing and hope in our news section.
Photo: Matthieu Ricard