The Wise One
Everyone involved in end of life care seems to talk about acceptance of death. One of the most popular talks about death on You Tube is a recording of Allan Watts discussing the reasons we should accept death. A Ted Talk watched by over four million people illustrates some ways people have learned to enjoy the last phase of their lives. Both of these talks are helpful, but neither tells you how dying people can come to terms with their own death and find some peace of mind.
Acceptance of death is a spiritual matter. Spirituality refers to what we believe about the meaning of life and death. Some people resolve these questions through religious traditions, while others grapple with these issues throughout their lives. In either case, the key to achieving some kind of peace is twofold: a) reflection or contemplation and b) presence. By presence, I mean staying in the moment. In any given moment, you may be dying, but you are still alive. Oddly enough, living as fully as possible, even at the end of life, allows us to face dying with a greater sense of peace.
Contemplation or reflection is a way of achieving presence and there are many methods for doing this. In Living Well, Dying Well I talk about creating a Dharma box, a method borrowed from Buddhist tradition, but more accessible to those of us in the West who are unable to clear our minds, meditate, or pray. In this method, you collect small things that you feel are essential to understanding your life: letters, pictures, objects, and poems. You choose a Dharma friend, someone you trust to listen and to reflect with you about what this collection means and what your life has been. Telling your story can help you achieve what Erik Erikson called “integrity,” the final task of psychological development. It can help you achieve a sense of completion, a feeling that the story of your one and only life span is worth recounting.
Forgiveness and connection can also bring us to a sense of peace. Reach out to the people who have been important to you. Let them know how you feel and what gifts they have given you. Make sure that you share your plans so people know what your wishes are about the end of life. Offer thanks to those who are caring for you. Gratitude is one of life’s great pleasures. Fill your life with the simple things that you have always loved. Orchids, roses, and lilies work for me. I want to sit in the falling snow, watch the sun go down from a cliff over the ocean, take a drive through a forest, and play with my grandchildren. None of these this is expensive. Figure out what makes you feel grateful to be alive. Paradoxically, living in the moment can make it easier to deal with dying.
For those who are bereaved, these same ideas can help. We can soften our despair by focusing on what the deceased meant to us, what they loved, and what they brought to our lives. We can be buoyed by reflecting on how to live into the lessons of a loved one’s life. A personal encounter with death can bring new vigor to the rest of our own lives. It give life to what’s important by stripping away the things that are not.
Fill your life with the things that mean the most to you. Seek out experiences that support gratefulness and presence. Don’t pretend. Witness your own feelings and allow yourself both have them and to let them go. Intense emotions are natural and normal when we sit with someone who is dying. You don’t have to squelch them or feel guilty about them. You are not required to hang on to them or to get over them. Authenticity can create integrity and bring peace at any time of life. Sometimes, when I’m troubled, the best thing I can do is to focus on my feelings and consider how long it’s been since I started feeling that way, note when I felt like that last, and remember that nothing is forever. This method, borrowed from Zen, brings me back to the moment. In the moment, I am okay.
It also helps to hold all of this lightly. If your style is contemplative or reflective, be careful not to seem righteous or dismissive of the suffering of others. It doesn’t matter how strongly we believe something, it’s more difficult to stay present when we try to impose our beliefs on someone else or let them create unrealistic expectations of others. Practicing listening, accepting, and forgiving helps us to live fully and find peace.