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Preparation for Conscious Dying

by Pierre Zimmerman

Most people don’t think about death and dying in our culture until someone close to them is facing a catastrophic illness or imminent death. Yet we know all of us will die sooner or later. It is everyone’s passport to the next world. Loved ones cannot keep us from it and material resources will be of no use. Only 30 percent of the population dies a sudden death by accident, stroke or heart attack.

When mortality manifests, we hope that people will have awareness and be better prepared for making end of life a time for growth, comfort and meaningful reflection. Any catastrophic illness forces most people to find meaning. Everyone will have to reconcile losses; the loss of identity, functionality, dignity and purpose, and will have to face an unfamiliar and uncertain future. Many will likely become dependent on others for basic needs and potentially become a burden.

The most important question with any terminal illness is how we can live most fully in whatever time is left. Reflection is warranted more than ever.

It is a time to remember: Being less ambulatory gives a person time to reflect on their life and its events, including the accomplishments and what was left undone; what and who influenced us, and whose lives were influenced. Also, who we loved, who we love now and what our present relationships mean.

It is a time to reassess: We may contemplate who are we, what our life added up to, if  we can forgive those that caused us harm willingly or unwillingly and ask for forgiveness, what is left to accomplish given our present limited capacities and how we can achieve closure with the people we love.

It is a time to reconcile: We may ask how we can find peace; if we are okay with not having done things we wanted to do; assess our regrets; and reconcile our imperfections and those of others.

It is a time to reunite: Most relationships are not perfect. Love is, but forces may have pushed us apart from someone due to conflict or relocation. It is important to be with family and friends to reconnect with honest conversations with those that are both close and far away or those that have been forgotten over the years.

Death is ultimately an individual experience. Some people die much as they have lived, while others change in dramatic ways. Often, a progressive illness provides opportunities to resolve and complete their relationships and get their affairs in order.

Wishing for a good death is one of the greatest fantasy wishes, because no one knows what the final moments will be like. An awareness of impermanence through generosity while living certainly eases the many transitions we experience in preparation to meet the daunting final transition.

The challenge for family and loved ones is to recognize the opportunities for growth and development and to help the dying person achieve them, while letting go of expectations and outcomes. It takes a willingness to talk about things usually avoided, such as painful memories, hurt and buried feelings and the pragmatic details of death and after death; obituaries, burials, wills, etc. It takes a practice of equanimity, unconditional acceptance, bearing witness to change without resistance, allowing for the inevitable to manifest, and it calls us to cross the threshold of our storylines again and again. Self-care for the caregiver is a must.

The more we are conscious and awake in our daily lives with the support of contemplative practices, the greater is the possibility of dying well. The physical body might be withering, but the emotional realm needs to be free from the fires of anger, attachment, delusion, envy and jealousy. Suffering is always optional, whether it is the suffering of change, the wanting of what we don’t have or the suffering of not wanting what we have. The more we practice being with dying and giving our internal landscape more room, the more we can respond to suffering with a tenderness that honors no bounds and gives no fear.

These prescriptions for practicing conscious dying are perfect for being fully alive and well, being grateful for this precious life of vanishing moments of movement and stillness, gratitude and wonder, mysteries and boundlessness.

Pierre Zimmerman, MS, is an organizational consultant and ordained Buddhist chaplain in end-of-life care and director of One Big Roof, in Saratoga Springs. He received mindfulness training at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society and teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for the Saratoga Stress Reduction Program. Contact him at 413-992-7012. For more information, about One Big Roof, visit OneRoofSaratoga.com.

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Natural Awakenings Magazine. Click to read more.