This past year I’ve been with two loved ones at the time of their passing, which was a bittersweet honor for me. The first passing, last September, was that of my beloved father-in-law at the age of 91, after his lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. More recently, I was in the room when my dear friend Thomas Steinbeck (the son of esteemed writer John Steinbeck) passed away at the age of 72 after a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In both cases, I was the only one present who had any sort of medical background, and although I hadn’t practiced nursing in more than thirty years, I was comfortable taking control of this emotional time for all the loved ones involved. Death can be scary, even for those who’ve been exposed to it many times.
Most often, we don’t know when a loved one will pass, but at other times, we have a sense that time is running out. Regardless of the situation, it’s still a painful and powerfully transformative time when a loved one departs from this physical realm. In both my recent personal experiences, I did know that time was running out, so I was able to prepare myself psychologically for the loss. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says that the reason the moment of death is so very potent with opportunity is “because it is then that the fundamental nature of mind, the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light, will naturally manifest, and in a vast and splendid way” (p. 110). What happens at this time is that we are finally liberated, or move on to the bardo (or intermediate state) between living and dying.
While preparing for the eventual loss of loved ones, we might spend time wondering if there are certain things we want to tell them. We might reflect on their roles in our lives, and how life will be after they depart. Being by someone’s deathbed might also lend itself to contemplation, and musings that we may not normally think about at any other time.
Even though I knew these two men were passing, I admit that there was a certain sense of denial about their mortality. They were strong men—war veterans—who’d witnessed and experienced love and hardship. They were both well read, and easily and generously shared their wisdom and knowledge. There were moments when I wanted to thank them for all they’d done for their loved ones, as well as humanity at large, but there were also times during their more lucid moments when I yearned to have them answer some deep philosophical [JK1] questions. However, for some reason, I refrained from asking those questions. Thinking back, I think I didn’t pose them because I didn’t want them to think I knew they were dying. The ironic thing is that they both knew they were dying, and because of their generous spirits, they would have told me anything I wanted to know.
In fact, Thom told me a few weeks before his passing that he didn’t have much time left. While I knew he was struggling with his breathing, I was in denial. I told him that he’d survived the Vietnam War and a number of health challenges, and would survive this setback as well. While this served me well at the time, looking back, I think he was giving me an opening to talk to him as if he were dying. He was a Buddhist and saw death as just another life transition. The only time this came up was when the hospice workers working with both these men told their wives to give them permission to “let go” and pass.
There are lessons to be learned from all our life experiences, and the death of these two loved ones has taught me a lot. I’ve learned to be even more authentic than I’ve always been. It also taught me to be even more mindful in the future, and carefully “listen to the messages” the dying are imparting to me. Had I done so in these two cases, I might have had a final confirmation of what I meant to these men, although in some ways I already knew because they were the type of individuals who were always open and forthright with respect to what they believed in. Knowing that hearing is the final sense to go, I did take the opportunity to tell both of them how much they meant to me, and how much I loved them, and for that I am grateful.
When faced with death, the meaning of life becomes so very important, as we remember that it’s foolish to sweat the small things. And most important, it’s wise to listen and pay attention to the messages offered by those who are passing because we may be surprised by how much we can learn. Remember, life is fleeting and precious . . . and should be treated as such until the very end.
What death teaches us:
Rinpoche S. (1992). The Tibetan Book of Death and Dying. New York: NY, HarperCollins.