Living a spiritual life while maintaining a regular meditative (reflective) attitude toward life, death, and dying is important to our ultimate death. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living” and if death is a part of life, the final stage or the stage in between, then “an unexamined death is not a death worth dying.”
In most religious traditions, this life is looked upon only as a preparatory stage for another (everlasting) life. According to the Dalai Lama (1997), “One of the principal factors that will help us to remain calm and undisturbed at the time of death is the way we have lived our lives. The more we have made our lives meaningful, the less we will regret at the time of death. The way we feel when we come to die is thus very much dependent on the way we have lived.”
In the Buddhist Scripture there are 10 basic questions that the Buddha refused to answer, and they are: Is the universe eternal? Is it not eternal? Is the universe finite? Is it infinite? Is the soul the same as the body? Is the soul one thing and the body another? Does a perfectly enlightened being exist after death? Does He not exist after death? Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death? Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor not exist?
Most thinking people ask another set of questions throughout their lives, such as who or perhaps, what, am I and what is the meaning of life? With regard to every day living, in some form or another, we also ask what should I do or not do? This question is often a self protective question, but also can have a more spiritual basis. We are, generally truth seekers and this too is one of the basic questions, what is or, how can I find the truth? And the one that spends much time on our television screens these days, how was the universe (or I) created? And linked to that , what happens after I die? Every religion believes that (they) know the answer to “Is there a God?” and that answer is taken on faith in those organisations, and yet, is still a question that many ask privately. I have observed that the closer we come to death, the firmer our belief in an after life and it’s Deity. Many ask, if there is a God, why is there so much suffering?
Most of us ask, at one time or another, how will I die? I know that when I believed my death was close to hand, I searched for the appropriate thoughts to occupy me in those final moments.
The mystery of life and death has been one of the primary motives for humanity’s search for the meaning of life.
Nakashima and Canda (2005) indicated in their study of 16 hospice patients, among the core resiliency factors were “empowering relationships with significant others, spiritual beliefs and practices, ability to skillfully confront mortality, and a stable care giving environment”
Interestingly, they also mentioned that “spirituality as the search for a sense of meaning and purpose in life implicitly imbued all of the other aspects of resilience as well”
I asked an oncology nurse just the other day, “What underlying theme, (if there is one) runs through people’s conversation’s in their last days?” She answered three intertwined questions were most predominant, – “why did I work so hard? And why did I not spend more time with my family? If only I had more time…..” I have often wondered what “spirituality” really is. I’ve talked about it and debated it at times, but in truth, we all have differing views. Remember the findings of Nakashima and Canda (2005) included the sense of meaning and purpose. Robert Marrone (1998), suggested that having a spiritual outlook has a more powerful effect on one’s psychological attitude than merely believing in afterlife.
The prospect of death makes us face certain “unpleasant” situations in life. He said “When one listens to a dying person, or reads the accounts of terminally ill people, it is clear that, as death nears, the perennial idea that grips the imagination is the idea of meaning or value.”
Keleman said that there are five styles of dying from a mythological perspective: the hero’s death, the wise person’s, the fool’s, the martyr’s, and the morbid death. During the time in my chosen profession, I have had the opportunity and indeed, the honour to witness the passing of many people who fitted these categories during their last days on this planet. And while I still experience an intense sadness with these events, I realize that each of us reaches our destination because of the choices we made along life’s journey.
If life is a series of experiences, then there are certain experiences that we can avoid by observing the effects they have (had) on the experiencer. Then, there are certain experiences that we cannot avoid, some of which might be pleasant, in which case we might try to repeat them, and some of which might be unpleasant, and we try not to repeat them. As Tony Robbins teaches, each of us attempts to avoid pain and experience pleasure and it is in accordance with our psychological imprinted “map” as to what that perceived pain or pleasure, really is.
In all these experiences of varying depth and value, there is one element that is common—that is, the experiencer, who can review and evaluate the experience afterward. Among one of the experiences that cannot be avoided, there is one that holds the supreme position, for the experiencer, and that is the ultimate experience of death. Interestingly, the experience of enlightenment, as depicted in various spiritual traditions, is similar to the experience of death in the sense that the experiencer, although still alive, is no longer the same person.
The First Noble Truth in Buddhism, known as Dukkha is often translated into English as “suffering” Perhaps, one of the reasons why we avoid talking about death or tremble at the idea of facing death is that we can see our own end; we can see our own loneliness. And for many, suffering holds the fear…
We may study about death in books, and we may think that we are prepared, but when a loved one dies, there is nothing more helpful than having a few caring friends and family members around us, not so much lecturing us about life and death, or what happens after death, but simply being there and sharing the pain with us.
It is a belief to which I subscribe that says, how one lives has much to do with how one dies. It is this awareness that helps us prepare for the final departure; every person we meet might be the last person that we face in this life. Every action that we perform might be the last action that we do.
Life is comprised of various connected elements. There is a thread, which stretches from our birth to our death, upon which we hang our life for all to witness.
According to Buddhism, and perhaps Hinduism, the last thought in the present life is the impulse or the imprint for the first thought in the next life. Every inhalation and the following exhalation signify life and death and is seen as a continuous dying. The moment when the next breath does not arise (for me it is the heart beat that never comes) is considered by many as the moment of death, a transition, or a step toward the next rebirth, if you believe in “another” or “the next life.” There can be no doubt that such beliefs bring comfort, not only to those who face impending death, but also to anyone who has contemplated what this life is all about.
For millennia, people have asked “Why are we here?” It is a question that weaves a common thread between the various religions and most spiritual beliefs. What happens after death, and is there a God? Such questions, through their very nature, are, no doubt accompanied by a certain anxiety and, I believe, such anxiety, increases in intensity, the closer we come to death. Many people become over-burdened with a sense of necessary completion in this life and the preparation for the next, thus impairing their final hours with the living.
Some people, I have witnessed, draw close to a depressive, frantic state, in the confusion of whether or not, their preparation for this “final journey” has been completed in good order.
Marrone reported, in 1999 that “When one listens to a dying person, or reads the accounts of terminally ill people, it is clear that, as death nears, the perennial idea that grips the imagination is the idea of meaning or value.”
Many people consider the process of dying as the Ultimate Journey, with death as its departure point. Some believe it to be the destination. We do not know exactly how or when we will get to that destination or whether there is somewhere else that we have to go after we reach there, but the many different spiritual traditions provide, sometimes detailed, explanations about how to prepare for such a journey.
A journey usually begins at one point and ends at another. This is not necessarily the case for a spiritual journey. A sacred quest starts with oneself and ends with oneself; one reason that we might call it an Inward Journey. But before we begin any journey, we need to know our destination.
With that, we study the various ways of getting from Point A to Point B, arranging for the necessary materials, and so on. A guide, sometimes considered to be indispensable, is one who knows the way, who has already gone from Point A to Point B, and is willing to show the way.
There is a school of thought that says that the real guide is already within us—often called the Divine seed or the Buddha nature. A spiritual journey, in many ways, is similar to a regular journey. It takes time; it needs supplies it requires strength, discipline, faith, and hard work.
It is my contention that those who accompany the dying person in their final hours here on earth, represent, to an extent, those guides and as such we have a duty to simply “be” with the dying person.
There are yogis who practice “meditation on death and dying” throughout their lives so that they can have a peaceful and aware death. There are those of us who avoid or postpone thinking about death and dying. Perhaps a proper dosage would be frequent (meditative) reminders.
My personal experiences have lead me to a belief that it is not only the dying person who is at risk of a “frantic depression,” but also their family, spouses, partners, and assistants. Such partners generally assume a responsibility for their charge and in so doing, the final outcome may become a mantle that causes the whole entourage to be cloaked in a depressive state in the lead up to the event of death. Some people respond to the apparent approach of death by becoming short tempered and “testy.” Emotions run high when you realize that there are few options left. Some people become withdrawn and that knowledge too, causes further withdrawal from family, friends and peers. They become isolated, which has a knock on effect among their immediate contacts and even the patient themselves. At times, such feelings develop into rage. Rage at the world, at family and at God.
Fear is the major driving force here. So many different types of fear. It may be that in recent times, since the onset of this illness, this person, the carer has done everything for their charge. During every waking moment they have probably done everything possible, nursed, fed, clothed, doctored and administered through simply being with their charge – and yet, here they find themselves on the brink of perceived loss. What happens then? Where they find themselves in this moment, has become their lives. What happens when that too, is gone? What happens when the carer runs out of the strength to continue? Are they then responsible for the outcome?
Of course they are not responsible, but many feel that they are. It is something that they do not consciously think of, and yet, such thoughts occupy their minds for much of their day. Fear, pure and simple. The very thing that is totally negative and non productive. Fear does little, except cause heartache. Fear will still exist, the trick is, not to allow them to be in control. Act despite the fear, not because of the fear.
Grief and loss are a package that will include impending loss and lost opportunity, the possibility of lost possibilities the grief about helplessness the grief of sadness in the knowledge of powerlessness over loss. Loss is intimately interwoven with life. We get older, lose physical fitness, lose friends and intimate relationships. On the scale of losses, death is the ultimate. Here, I am speaking of the death of a human being. A loved one, for death has many guises, such as the death of a relationship, a friendship, a pet or even an inanimate object, held dear.
According to Gunzberg, In grief, we recognize such possibilities as the loss of a shared future, loss of needs fulfilled, of intimacy, of rituals, of interaction, of meaning and thus ultimately the loss of identity and self. Physical reactions of grief and loss often include nausea, headaches, loss of sleep, crying, overuse of drugs or being angry with God, religiosity or search for meaning and numerous other behaviors of which, I am sure, we are aware
How severely these reactions to loss are experienced depends on internal and external factors and may include the Place and nature of death coincidental or successive deaths. Social and cultural patterns – such as shame and internal factors such as attachment history and loss and death history.
Ivey (2003: 152) describes four basic feelings: sad, mad, glad and scared. Bereavement can take a big toll on a person’s life through depression, through altered relationship patterns and sleep problems, ill health and exhaustion. Crying is nature’s way of releasing tension and evokes empathy and releases endorphins that calm and reduce stress. However, crying is not always socially acceptable. For example, historically, men and boys are not expected to cry much.
At some point the grief stricken person will probably feel angry. Angry at God. Angry at the unfairness of the loss. Anger at whom or what has been lost for deserting you, and an increase or onset of physical illness around the loss experience. Such fears may be experienced at the expectation of death or what might occur after. However such behaviours, can occur at any time of significant and life threatening illness. In order to allow people to deal with a diagnosis of terminal illness, they have to live with the prognosis.
Depression and Loneliness are often experienced, along with feelings of isolation, hurt, and sadness. Many people grieve for the probability of lost opportunities and experience the fear of death at these times.
Many times, against all odds, hope sneaks through the cracks, takes root and begins to grow again. All parties will grieve lost opportunities, and at times this may become a drawn-out period – longer than what might be called normal and become what is termed complicated grief.
A definition of complicated grief is offered by Shear and Shair: “Complicated grief occurs when integration of the death does not take place. People who suffer from complicated grief experience a sense of persistent and disturbing disbelief regarding the death and resistance to accepting the painful reality. Intense yearning and longing for the deceased continues, along with frequent pangs of intense, painful emotions. Thoughts of the loved one remain preoccupying often including distressing intrusive thoughts related to the death, and there is avoidance of a range of situations and activities that serve a reminder of the painful loss. Interest and engagement in ongoing life is limited or absent.”
Risk of complicated grief includes a range of factors that can include such past experiences as childhood abuse and serious neglect which may lead to separation anxiety, marital closeness and dependency and lack of support. Many people find it difficult to deal with strong emotions or behaviours that are out of the ordinary.
Support groups often supply the necessary support, which allows all participants in this journey, to grieve and understand the events that have enveloped them. Perhaps a discussion around support groups may be beneficial at a later date.
John Allan is an author and public speaker and has been involved in assisting people with cancer and serious illness, since the mid nineties. John is a counsellor and Life Coach, in private practice. John specialises in mind image, using a narrative and semiotic approach to his work. He is an N.L.P. Practitioner, experienced in clinical hypnosis and E.F.T. He teaches meditation as a technique for reducing stress and seeking wellness.