Death, dying, and the Dharma

I never felt completely at ease as a volunteer. What do you say to someone when they have moved closer to death every time you see them? And not just in the abstract sense that we all are moving in that same direction, but in the very immediate sense – that they are losing control of their body, and their life force is ebbing away day by day. Very few clients seemed to want to talk about death, at least to me. More often they wanted to talk about their lives. All too often they had bad feelings towards their families or others who they felt had let them down in one way or other.

It is true that some people become beautiful in death, they come to a place of what can only be termed grace, but this is not as common as some of the recent literature on dying and the hospice movement imply. Volunteers and members of staff felt a strong desire that the dying person should have the best possible death. In nearly all the cases I witnessed this was indeed true, as the hospice was a caring and warm place. However I did not often witness a spiritual transformation. It is hard to know what is going on with someone as they draw near to death: many are heavily medicated and confused. I was often amazed by the acceptance of those facing death, but I wonder if that was the result of a natural, in-built reaction to the process of dying.

Among the volunteers I saw a desire to ascribe this acceptance to some spiritual insight, but I think this had more to do with the needs of those attending than the experience of the dying person. I became increasingly uneasy about the New Age image of a good, even a redemptive death. We all need to make death seem OK.

A year after I finished working at the hospice I was asked to take part in a practice day for present and former volunteers. I was given a short slot to say a few words and lead a brief meditation. I was pleased to be asked, as I have great admiration for the volunteers and staff. I made two points. Firstly, no matter how closely one has been in contact with death, through the support and witnessing of others, death remains a mystery — something unknowable — and perhaps this remains true even at our own death. Secondly, and more importantly, even a “good’ death does not and should not be understood as making up for a life that has been unhappy or selfish. It does not put right the appalling neglect of society towards many of its less fortunate citizens (many of the people that came to the hospice were homeless or living in awful situations). Nor does it make up for a life that has not been well lived.

Looking back, I think I became a hospice volunteer because I wanted to face the reality of death, and the fact that I will die. I left the work no wiser about the nature of death, but perhaps with a little more resolution to try to live my life with kindness and courage.

Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher. He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002. His books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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