Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead … more from our social worker

This is the sixth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. The others can be found here.

At this time of year, Mexicans specifically remember the dead with the Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, on the 1st or 2nd November for Mexicans, the souls of dead loved ones are invited back to visit the living.  Communities across Mexico and elsewhere gather together to remember dead relatives and friends, toast their memory and reaffirm their feelings for loved ones who have died.

Health agencies around the world now celebrate the Day of The Dead to raise awareness of death issues to get people talking more about death for, as I try to point out in the following articles, it is important individually and collectively that we do so.  In the UK, the Day of the Dead is the 4th November.  Watch out for news and events relating to this, or why not do something yourself?

In my next couple of articles, I’ll be explaining how I used Buddhism and meditation to help me in my care of the elderly and the dying.

How to help the dying

In my third and final year as a student social worker I decided that my Buddhist values were best suited to the care of older people and the dying as there is less theorising about different types of care and more practical and dynamic compassion.  I feel the elderly, frail and dying are the best service user group where Buddhism could have a lot to offer. There is a lot of good information in this website and in Geshe Kelsang’s book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully (2009) Geshe Kelsang says you can benefit those who are about to die. He encourages those benefiting the dying to help keep the dying person’s mind calm and peaceful, trying to prevent them from becoming upset or unhappy.  He stresses the importance of dying peacefully without any disturbance.

Geshe Kelsang (2010) also talks about the power of prayer. He says:

Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara

The power of our prayers depends upon the strength and purity of our intention and that having a mind of compassion for the dying or deceased is very important – if we have a genuinely compassionate motivation our prayers will definitely be effective.

Several times a day I dedicate my good fortune/merit to the vulnerable people I meet in my work as a student social worker; and when a service user I know dies, I do “powa” puja for them (transference of consciousness).

And how not to

During my final year of training I worked in an acute hospital trust within a discharge liaison team and I also focussed my dissertation on the care of older people and the dying. At work I played a part in helping service users leave hospital swiftly, but safely and legally.  It’s been my toughest job so far because it can be a very busy environment in which to remain calm (I had to interrupt busy doctors and nurses in their wards – asking them to improve their paperwork and inform me about discharges).  I was not Mr Popular with them but I managed the conflict well and made sure I got all the necessary information.

In my work it was challenging to see health and social care professionals disagree at times over the care and funding of care of a dying person. One memory that stands out is of a team colleague liaising in the battle between health and social care over who was going to pay for the service user’s care – whilst the actual service user was in the process of dying.  What affect must this have had on the service user?

Most discharges are not deaths; they are often issues around finding an appropriate care home for the service user, perhaps issues around mental capacity and their medical fitness.  Whenever there was a death there was often confusion about what was the appropriate action to take, whether to rush them off to home to die or to allow them to die in hospital.  This was the topic of my dissertation – how to have a good death.

Where would you like to die?

In the UK, 56 to 74 per cent of us would like to die at home but 60 per cent of us actually die in hospital.  Numbers of home deaths have been declining (to below 20 percent).  Roughly 500,000 people die each year with fewer than 8,000 specialist doctors and nurses, so there is not sufficient capacity. This combined with an ever increasing ageing population and more people living with multiple and degenerate conditions means there are increasing pressures on the health and social care system. Many people are not getting their wishes fulfilled of having a good death – at home.

Talking openly about death

There is an increasing awareness campaign in the UK to address these problems and in the future there may be more of a role for social care and social work to pre-empt matters.  The campaign is a continuous one that encourages everyone in our society to talk openly about death e.g. making wills well in advance, and planning and caring well for those who we know are very ill and perhaps dying. They even discuss issues around advance directives involving not using resuscitations and switching off life support machines, in certain circumstances.

I found similarities with this campaign and Buddhism in that they both recognise that we don’t like to talk about death too much.  In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, Geshe-la says:

Although intellectually we all know that one day we shall die, generally we are so reluctant to think about our death that this knowledge does not touch our hearts, and we live our life as if we were going to be in this world forever.

Through my dissertation research I found sociologists who agreed with this view, saying that, historically, institutions in our society have protected us from thinking about death, helping us suppress or suspend our thoughts about death.

At Kadampa Buddhist Centres we don’t have to wait for the Day of the Dead to discuss death and dying and how an awareness of death can enrich our spiritual practice 🙂 These kinds of discussion take place regularly!

Your turn
What do you think? Is it too morbid or depressing to think or talk about death? Or has it helped you live a happier, fuller life, and/or to help others who are dying or bereaved?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

10 thoughts on “Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead … more from our social worker”

  1. Phew. I’ve thought constantly about death from a very early age, probably, in big part due to internal obstacles and laziness, not always in the best kind of way.
    I sometimes wish that death was really the end, everything would be so much simpler.

    However, Buddhism tells me that that is not the case and I must face up to that!

    I love hearing about the Mexican Day of the Dead, above and find the comment ‘I feel the elderly, frail and dying are the best service user group where Buddhism could have a lot to offer’ very true and moving.

    What better than to give love and help to beings at the most crucial time of death? Truly joyous and meaningful action.

  2. Thanks for your article. We held a Day of the Dead cellebration on 2nd Nov here in Penzance, Cornwall. We created an Offrenda based on a Medecine wheel, which is a traditional mandala full of different coloured foods to invite the spirits. Each person made a small shrine for their loved ones who had died, offering them their favorite food and telling everyone else something about them. It was moving and helped us to move away from the western ideas of Taboo and negative feelings into a more celebratory view of their lives and the effect they or their death had upon us.
    We all shared our experiences and it was a deepening of our friendships and an opportunity for closure with our departed friends and loved ones. We all want to celebrate again next year and become regulars with our death awareness.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Juliet – your day of the dead celebrations sounded wonderful!

  3. When I first did the meditation on death in Ft Myers, FL I was new to buddhism, and can say I thought I would never go back to another class. Well here I am 8 yrs later and my practice still continues. Death is a “hard” subject to talk about and something I don’t like to think about. I catch myself thinking of my death and talking about it openly yet I am unable to think of the death of those I “love”, so is that considered bad? because I have serious attachment to these people.

  4. Some great comments here! I tend not to talk about Dharma, especially death, unless someone specifically asks, but our actions in daily life in our society (wherever that maybe) – even on Facebook & Twitter do stand out and help people considerably.

    The intention behind these social work articles is to show how Dharma can work in a daily job, but yes, becoming mindful of death myself, purifying my mind and overcoming the laziness of attachment is perhaps more important.

  5. The meditation on death is meant to help us live. Life is not death, but becomes meaningful when meditation on death inspires us to live more purely. Meditation on death should not be misapplied. If we believe we may die today and choose to live in purity, then we are living in accordance to what the perspective on death is meant to cause in us, effort. But what need is there to reflect on death when ones effort is constant and effortless? Does a being living in ever-increasing purity need to remember they may die, or does death become a dismissed concept of an old faulted way of being. As we purify, do we not purify death as a potential reality for our self? According to Buddha we can choose our time of death, we can also heal others of their death and illnesses. Is the meditation on death then valid to this mind that only sees life and healing? Buddha has given us, the weak in faith, the Powa that can send our loved ones to a pure world by no effort of their own. This practice gives us the faith to actually change the course of our loved ones path in their death, but what of their path in life? If faith can send a loved one bound to samsara to a pure world of peace, why do we deny the power our faith can have over illness and death. We have made them so common place, so acceptable as reality, and in this familiarity we have lost our faith in the blessing. If we can not believe in life for the dying or health for the sick, how is it ever going to come through blessings.
    Tara manifested an island for a person stranded at sea.
    Medicine Buddha healed the sick
    Tara’s mantra turned rocks to food
    Has Buddha changed in his powers? Does medicine Buddha not come when we call for him, just as sure as the paramedics when we call 911? Or do we just have more faith, more belief in the power of a worldly dr over Buddha? How we really believe within appears in the outer world, so if Buddhas function for us with certainty(like dialing 911) then we will see their healing. If we do not see them healing all around us we can know, not that they are powerless or deciding from their side a person is not worthy of healing, but that we lack deep belief and faith within our own minds. This way we can grow in our beliefs so we may see their truth with our outer eyes. When we call upon medicine Buddha, does he always come and effortlessly and perfectly perform service for us? If not, then why? Because we believe more in worldly beings then in Buddhas. Buddhas help must become as real and common to us as our reliable worldly friends.

  6. Hi Shirley

    It’s a difficult one isn’t it – we want to help our friends but we can’t “push” dharma on to them. Geshe-La often talks about showing by example, and through this people will want to know why we are happier.

    We are very fortunate to have kind sangha friends who allow us to address issues that are “not popular” in the rest of society in an honest way so that we can gain a deep understanding of the teachings.

    One of our sangha died (after living for many years with cancer) at our centre this summer. We did 24 hour Tara prayers with her for the last two weeks of her life. She died peacefully (amazingly with no medication) and she told us the prayers were definitely helping her. Her family where with her and, although not Buddhist, understood that we were helping her die peacefully.

    The experience touched our sangha (myself included) in a deep way and I feel very fortunate to have been part of my dear friend’s last weeks in this life.

    Love Kate x

  7. Since I am a practicing Kadampa, I talk about death and am working on remembering death as much as I can. I have told my family my wish and thoughts.

    Where I run into a challenge is with my friends that are not Kadampas. They complain that I am morbid and talk about death too much. When I say to them. “You are aware that you will die too right”, the responds is usually “I know, but I do not want to think about it until the time comes”.

    I am now more careful about who I talk to about death. I do wander though if I am doing my friends a disservice by not talking to them about death.Is it more kind to not make them uncomfortable?

    What is your advice?

    1. It’s a good question. I tend not to talk about it with people who don’t want to hear as it can be counterproductive and unwelcome, but there can be openings into the conversation of impermanence and death, when we can be as sensitive and skillful and non-evangelizing as possible. Geshe-la seems to be implying this when talking about the refuge commitment to encourage others to go for refuge by helping them remember impermanence ~ Joyful Path page 222-223.

      What do other people do? What is the balance between annoying over-proselytizing and timidly hiding our light under a bushel?!

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