Those who accompany a dying person on their final journey often have no idea how to do it. Families need time for their regular duties, time to grieve, time for self-care, and time for being with the patient. The mission of The Metta-Institute is to train professionals as End of Life Practitioners. Its founder, Frank Ostaseski, has outlined five precepts for companions of the dying at: https://fiveinvitations.com/.
The first precept is to welcome everything and push away nothing. It takes courage and flexibility to sit with dying people. The job is to listen, to trust the experience, and to stay open to whatever unfolds. Part of the task is to pay careful attention to what’s happening, to words and nonverbal cues, to changes in energy and pain, and to all the cues and signals that emerge, without trying to change or solve things.
The second precept is to bring to the experience our whole selves, our fears, and our love. We need to attend to what’s going on inside ourselves as we discover how to be with someone who’s experiencing pain, fear, or grief. Too often, we adopt a strategy of mutual pretense to get through the process of someone’s death. Trying to be warm and upbeat can be far more wearing than allowing our own pain and fear to surface when they bubble up. Stuffing your own feelings down again and again can build a barrier, blocking your own strength and compassion. In this journey, you will need to find someone to support you, too.
Here’s the third precept: don’t wait. When you’re waiting for someone to die, you’re often full of anxiety and worry about what’s going to happen next. Waiting for death can mean missing out on the present. If you need to say, “I love you,” do it. If you need forgiveness, ask for it. Take the opportunities that arise along the way to strengthen your relationship.
The fourth precept is to find a place of peace in the middle of things. At Hospice of Santa Barbara, for instance, volunteers are taught to take a moment before entering a dying person’s room. Find your center, your balance, your sense of calm. Breathe; pray; meditate.
Finally, cultivate an open mind unbounded by roles, regulations, and expectations. No one knows what’s going to happen, but we can “not know” together, staying close to the situation, and letting our actions be guided by immediate experience rather than by our expectations or judgments.
In the spirit of not waiting, it’s important to find expression for a few crucial sentiments. Both dying people and those who surround them often feel the need to ask for forgiveness, to express their love and appreciation, to say goodbye, and to know that it’s okay to die. Monica Williams-Murphy and Kristin Murphy offer a strong argument for friends and family to facilitate the reunion of a dying person with someone with whom they feel the need to reconcile, if that’s possible. Unaddressed feelings can cause a person to hang on, hoping for closure, and they likewise can become regrets for survivors (“He never really got to say goodbye”).