Veetman about his experiences while being with the dying, their relatives and friends. This article includes a beautiful meditation which can help to become more aware of transience.
“I have never experienced death. I don’t know anything about dying. Now my mother is very ill and dying, and I feel helpless, I have no idea what to do, what is right to do.”
I hear these or similar words in many conversations.
I suppose many would feel the same way. In our culture, dying and death are so feared and denied that we feel completely overwhelmed when confronted with them.
Death is an issue that our society, which idolizes young people and future orientation, is progressively evading, denying and ignoring. Nevertheless, death is constantly present in all media, but at a great distance. There is a strange division in our psyche. On the one hand, death is an integral part of our violent environment, but we do not accept it within ourselves and refrain from dealing with our own mortality and preparing ourselves in life for our death.
The atmosphere of the mysterious with which we surround dying and death is unnecessary, only a projection of our thinking. There is no reason why we should not learn to care more honestly for the dying. In fact, we have every reason to do so, because caring for people we love or others in their transition is the last and greatest gift we can give to someone.
We’re all going to die sooner or later. This is neither a failure nor a personal disaster. Of course, it will make us sad when we see that others live on, and we will miss these people, but that is the natural course of things: Samsara.
Modern medicine has made tremendous progress in the last decade, so that many people mistakenly believe that virtually every disease must be curable. Doctors see death as a personal failure, and this feeling can rub off on relatives of the person concerned and create an atmosphere of helplessness and failure in the surroundings of the dying.
The first thing we have to do is to look at our attitude to death in general, to our own death, and finally to that of the dying person. We must learn to accept the situation as it is, to come to terms with the fact of death and to break away from sentimental and unrealistic ideas that lead us to deny death as if it did not exist. Developing a realistic and relaxed attitude towards death is very liberating and indeed gives us the strength we need to deal with death and dying. This is a great help for the dying.
Some fear that if they accept death and take it as self-evident, it indicates an insensitive and unkind attitude. They think it is better to keep appearances until the end in order to avoid the impression that they would wish for the death of that person.
This contemplation can help to examine our attitude to death. Sit down quietly in the evening and watch the sunset. When the day becomes night and the light in the sky disappears, watch the ending. “The day is over; it has come to an end. The bright promise of dawn blossomed at noon and gradually faded in the late afternoon. The evening has approached in silence, and now the end has come. The day has passed.”
Contemplate, feel it in silence without thinking about it. Realize the transience of all things and let the points of contact of your consciousness with reality become more permeable: Nothing lasts. Everything is fleeting. This too will pass.
This reflection will gradually help you to accept reality. This is the reality: we are all transient. This realization is not intended to make you morbid, nor turn the world into a place of gray despair, but it invites you to use what you really know to liberate your inner intelligence. You will then feel much freer and you will be able to surrender to the big wave instead of wanting to hold on to everything. Look at the clouds: they mass together and dissolve again. Look at the leaves on the trees: in summer they are green and full of life, in autumn red and golden, and even before winter the wind blows them away, leaving the branches bare.
Wherever you are, whatever you do, allow your consciousness to tune into the transience that surrounds us everywhere. It will then relax a little, the compulsive grasping for everything will subside, and you will be a little more relaxed with life.
If you want, you can continue this process and make a list of all the people you know about who have died. “I knew so-and-so, now he’s dead. Yes, we’re all going to die. It’s part of our human lives.”
With the awareness of transience, you free yourself from unnecessary confusion and fixation on death, which you would otherwise probably project on the dying person. You are then free to be with a dying person in a conscious, emotionally clear way and take care of their needs. In the last days and hours of the dying person you should be present in a very real and human way.
Openness and honesty
It’s time to be honest with yourself and the dying person. Many people get into panic and confusion when a person close to them is diagnosed with a fatal disease. Often the first reaction is not to tell the dying person. This creates a silent conspiracy in which all friends and relatives are involved, while the dying person is dealt with by lies and deceptions. “You’ll have to wait and see. We still don’t know what’s really going on with you. Don’t worry, everything will be fine soon. In a few days you will be back home,” etc.
This behavior is unnecessary and cruel and represents the culture of denial that urges us to deny reality to the very end. It is said we do this to protect the dying, but that’s usually not true.
Most people cannot bear to be confronted with the suffering of the dying, especially if they are very close to them. Because it hurts us to see them suffer, we do not want to let them suffer. How can we achieve this? By shielding them from the truth. Therefore, we begin with an oppressive charade, smiling, putting on a brave face and completely avoid responding to the obvious.
Because we isolate the dying person in this way, such behavior is cruel. Mostly it is clear to the dying that they will die, and they certainly notice that we are trying to fool them. All those who should be there for them – to love them and help them accept and surrender to death, to let go of their fear – let them down in these important moments. Hence the dying experience painful confusion and may not be able to accurately capture or articulate what is happening. They only realize that they are becoming more and more lonely, confused and anxious, and that the people around them avoid making real contact with them.
That’s why it’s best to tell the dying the truth. You may need help in this, and perhaps an experienced dying companion can explain to you how best to address this issue. Today there are excellent hospices and also trained companions in the process of dying who know how best to help and accompany the dying, especially in the phase of chaos, the psychological and spiritual stages of dying.
If it is difficult for you to cope with the situation, you probably need to think about it, or, even better, meditate silently to digest and adjust to all its implications.
Take the time you need to do that, but don’t forget about the dying. This person does not stop being human just because they are facing death. Perhaps it is best to tell the dying person your own confusion in this situation – as long as the person concerned is mentally and emotionally strong enough to talk about it. If it is someone very close to you, it may be that the dying person suffers from the imminent departure and is grieving for their life, and would therefore like to talk to you about it. This creates a situation in which you can help each other and create a deep connection.
Some people are not able to face death and in that case, you shouldn’t force it. The best thing you can do is to create a loving and supportive atmosphere so that the dying person continues to feel connected to people and their humanity.
It’s your job to help this person die his or her own death.
I am thinking of the death of a wonderful man, Martin, who had been in hospital for many weeks with cancer. I saw him every night; he was getting weaker and frailer every day. I tried to talk to him about his dying when he was awake, but he kept getting very scared and didn’t want to talk about it. I then talked to him about other things that he was ready for, his children and grandchildren, and about his plans to make structural changes to his house. We talked about it because it gave him pleasure. He had difficulty speaking because the cancer had also affected his larynx and vocal cords, but he could still whisper a few words. Every day I brought him information about the planned structural changes, and he could look forward to it and deal with it. I didn’t want to take away his denial, because it was the only thing he still had. Weeks went by. One evening I came to the hospital late, and it was very quiet in the room. Martin was asleep, supported by pillows. Something had changed. His breath was restless and I knew that the active dying process had begun, and the moment of death was near. The ward nurse was very honest and direct, and when I told her my impression she confirmed, “Yes, he will die tonight.”
I went back to his room; he was awake, and the nurse did everything to create a calming atmosphere. I only stayed a few minutes and told him that I would leave now. I said goodbye, knowing that this was the final farewell because I saw the element of air dissolving in him. He looked at the nurse who said something to him, and then he waved casually to me, as if he was going to see me again in a few hours. I left. Four hours later he died.
I had a clear feeling when I later thought about it, that it was perfectly all right how he had died. I was sure because I knew that death was his business, that he wanted to die the way he thought was right. I had to accept how he wanted to die. Maybe he could only do it by keeping the appearance that he was going to live, until the end of his breath. It wasn’t my idea of dying, but that wasn’t the point. It was about his dignity, and I had done what he wanted me to do. We should learn to enable people to “die according to their disposition.”
We need to remember that it is in no way right wanting to force something. Akong Rinpoche said on the subject of compassion, “Accept others as they are. Help all beings as you wish to be helped.”
Often, we want to help others according to our ideas. More than once a dying person asked me to leave them alone, because I thought my ideas about their dying process were more important. Then sometimes there were deep, honest conversations about what this person wanted in relation to death and the time afterwards. I was glad to know that this person could trust to go their own way towards death.
Veetman runs the Institute for Living and Dying, together with Sukhi, his partner since 1997. They facilitate trainings in Psycho-Spiritual Support for the Dying in Europe, and workshops about authentic presence, love and consciousness, as well as silent retreats. www.living-dying.com – ausbildung.spirituelle-sterbebegleitung.info
Veetman’s CDs on Death, Meditation and Transformation are mostly in German, but his audiobook ‘Bardo – Awakening from the Dream’ is available in several languages. He recently published the book ‘Spirituelle Sterbebegleitung‘ (Spiritual Dying Accompaniment, available in German)
Bardo: An Interview with Veetman
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