Several friends and relatives have died in the last two months. Only yesterday my aunt Rachel died – if I had just a few words to describe her it would be as one of life’s innocents, generous almost to a fault, if you could call it a fault to be taken advantage of occasionally but not actually care. After looking after her father, mother, and ancient aunt until they died, she spent the rest of her life taking in waifs and strays. In the last years of her life she suffered from dementia – when I saw her last year she had no clue who anybody was, including me, and she tried eating her napkin for lunch. But still she was smiling at me with that funny smile of hers — although she was losing her human faculties, she kept her gentle heart. Physically she was as strong as an ox, surviving on the occasional aspirin, and she only got ill the day before yesterday.
Before Rachel, it was Jenny, the mother of Gen Samten, followed shortly afterwards by Gail, the mother of Robert Goodman, followed by Sandra Sookraj, my close childhood friend, and, two days after that, Bob Hill. All overtaking my own beloved mother, who has been poorly and bedbound for longer than all of them. Other close friends’ parents have also died in the last year or so at a rapid clip; it’s clearly that time. People my age have front row seats to these exits stage right, and we are about to replace them as the oldest generation.
Of course I will have to watch everyone I know die, if I don’t die first. It’s brutal. It’s ridiculous.
I attended Jenny’s and Gail’s funeral services online. I’m going to share a little because cremations or burials always seem significant to me – not least because it’s where most of us are headed.
When Maya shared her mother’s unconventional life story, after “Morning has Broken”, it made sense to me why Maya and Gen Samten turned out the way they did — Jenny was a free spirit from the start. The service included this perfect quote from White Eagle, whom Jenny loved, and which sounds very Buddhist to my ears:
“So go about life condemning none, but looking kindly and with love upon all; hold no harsh thought even about a so-called enemy. In truth, no man can really be your enemy, all are your teachers; and when you are tempted to feel injured or resentful because of some apparent injustice, look first within yourself and ask, “What has this to show me, what have I to learn from this?” In time truth will reveal itself, so that instead of thinking antagonistically you will be able to say, “Thank you, brother, for you have taught me much, and helped me”. The other person’s motive is not your business. Behind is the guiding hand of wisdom. The great lords of karma rule your ways, and any apparent injustice can be transformed into a jewel of great beauty in your temple, even as deep suffering can bring divine revelation. So put away any sense of injury and look out upon the world with a calm love.”
And this perfect quote from the Buddhist Master Shantideva:
Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.
Jenny’s husband, the wonderful Jim aka Mr T, gave a poetic, heart-touching tribute, and then we all chanted Tara mantras. Altogether, this was a meaningful 30 minutes – impressively pulled together in a short but timeless ceremony.
I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with Gail a couple of weeks before she died – whether or not she recognized me, she still graced me with that radiant friendly smile. And Robert and I managed to talk with her about life and death and the future, and she was not scared.
At the memorial service, starting with when he first laid eyes on her, “That’s the girl for me,” her husband Dave made a valiant attempt to talk about her life; but how can we possibly sum up a person’s life in a few paragraphs? As Dave said, “How do you condense a life together of 62 years?” We try, but Gail had millions and millions of subjective experiences that her family were never privy to, and never will be now. Nor will she – for those experiences dissolved away almost the moment they appeared, and even their memories have now disappeared forever. She was so alive and now she seems so gone.
Her children remembered her as “a rock I could stand on”. Her grandchildren remembered her cooking and her hugs. Robert gave, according to the vicar (and me), “a powerful and indeed wise tribute” – talking about how, in Buddhism, we contemplate the great kindness of our mother. So, even leaving aside all that other stuff such as treats after swimming lessons and the innumerable times she was simply there for us, our mother also gave us our entire body — legs, arms, and toes — and she taught us how to walk, talk, eat, etc. Gail also apparently subscribed to the words of Khalil Gibran:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”
Particularly poignant for me was the death of Sandra Sookraj, a close childhood friend from Guyana who died on Friday January 13th from a recurrence of the cancer everyone thought she had beaten. I’d had several discussions with Sandra over the past months about life and death, what is the Pure Land, karma, and so on; and a few days before she died, her sister Debra called me so we could talk about these things again.
Sandra was a Hindu whose main object of refuge was Lord Krishna, so I reminded her of this faith, to feel that he was in her heart and at her crown protecting and looking after her — helping her in this life and in her future lives. I talked about how she was surrounded by love from her family, friends, and people who don’t know her but know of her, and especially love from all the holy beings, including Krishna. I encouraged her not to be scared but to set her sights on his Pure Land so that he could lead her there — a place where everyone has a peaceful and kind mind and wisdom in their hearts, and from where she’d be able to emanate to help her family and all the people of this world. Sandra always felt totally responsible for her family, and a lot of them could not accept that she was dying; so I encouraged her to release the burdens of this life and give herself permission to go happily. That way she’d be able to help them from her next life.
Debra was asking Sandra if she could hear all of this, and Sandra was nodding yes. Twice she opened her eyes to make a big effort to say something to me. First, after apologizing for not replying to my recent texts (apology accepted!), she held eye contact long enough to say that she loved me, that she felt blessed to have had me in her life, “you appeared in my life for a reason”, and that other than her family I was the closest thing to her. The second time she opened her eyes, she said, to my surprise: “I hope Sally doesn’t have to suffer much longer before she goes.” Lying on her own deathbed (for goodness sake), looking quite beautiful and other-worldly, she had this compassion for my mother.
A few days later Debra luckily caught me just as I was walking through the door after a busy day and asked me to talk to Sandra, who was in the death process. I was put on video speaker and able to say some of these things again; and Sandra opened her eyes to look at me one last time. I know she heard. However, it was Debra who was the star that day. In what is not an atypical deathbed scene, some of the other people in the room were shouting for morphine because blood was coming out of Sandra’s nostril, yelling for the doctor, crying loudly, and grasping onto her skinny arms, all in a desperate bid to support her in the only way they could think of. Yet, putting her own considerable grief aside, I watched as Debra managed to calm most of them down and encourage her sister that everything was ok, that she was safe, that she could go now. A few minutes later, Sandra took her last breaths.
People don’t know what to do at deathbeds. Buddha had so much to say on the subject. There is so much we can do. We can make all the difference in the world at this most important time. We have to share this understanding.
A few days later, a friend here in Denver died. Unlike Sandra’s chaotic hospital room, Bob had luckily ended up in the best hospice I’ve ever seen (I’ve asked them to put me on their waiting list, lol). He had Sangha and his brother visiting him almost non-stop to chat, make prayers, and remind him of his practice — and his death couldn’t have been more peaceful.
All these deaths have brought me over and over to the question, where have they gone? Where does everyone go? Are they really gone? Where is everyone?!
Feel free to write in with your answers!
More coming up in Part Two, on its way.
I have been saying prayers for Sally. My Mum’s name was Sally too. In the “Twilight” section of Pablo Neruda’s “100 Love Poems,” the final two stanzas of poem XC are as follows (and I love them because to me they are about refuge):
Because while life harasses us, love is
only a wave taller than the other waves:
but oh, when death comes knocking at the gate,
there is only your glance against so much emptiness,
only your light against extinction,
only your love to shut out the shadows.
Thank you for sharing this poem.
Will you explain more about how they are refuge for you, when you get a moment?
Thank you also for keeping my mom Sally in your prayers. Sallys rule.
Nothing had prepared me for the loss of my Mum in my early 20’s. I hadn’t met Kadam Dharma at that point. However, shortly before her death, I learned about Buddha Vajrasattva. I held on to Vajrasattva for dear life during her dying process and after she died; no joke. The depth of my refuge in him during that time is the depth of refuge that I would like to experience at my death-time: Only his glance, his light, his love.
And how lucky Buddha Vajrasattva found you in time.
Seeing the title I thought of your mother and maybe that she had gone to the Pure Land. Your post is so profound and I can add little to the comments already made. Thank you once again for reminding us of how important it is for us to help others to die with a peaceful mind and respecting their faith while transforming it meaningfully with wisdom and our Guru at our heart.
Thank you so much for writing this.
I do think that death is probably the most important and vulnerable moment of our life, and that everything we can do to help each other, we should.
My brother passed on in 2012, from cancer and complications from chronic alcoholism. The alcoholism and deep depression, of course, changed his personality but he never became verbally or physically abusive. In 2021, he appeared in my “dream” and we were hugging each other (however I didnt see his face). The HUG woke me up, startled,but not afraid. It was the most powerful hug I ever felt, as I still felt for two hours afterward.
I felt certain it was him as we were very close. My question how is this possible since according to my Buddhist study, he would have been in a lower bardo. I read if this happens, it means I should pray for him.
I am seeking a higher understanding as my experience was very real Thank you
We only stay in the bardo for up to 49 days before taking rebirth. Who knows where your brother ended up taking rebirth? We don’t know where people go, not until we have deep realizations.
The important thing might be that you still have this powerful love for him, and some kind of connection; and that you can spread this love and feeling of connection out to others. “A good heart always brings good results”, as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says.
Thank you, very concise and beautifully written as usual. I also have been thinking about where “people” go when they die and where they are now.
Physically I see them everywhere. The heat from cremation for example pervades its surroundings and creates change. Buried ashes or bodies become part of the earth and support and nourish all remaining. George MacLean who was not my biological father is in my thoughts, my actions, part of my spiritual- psychological dna. Although I miss being able to call him on the phone, I am comforted knowing he did not disappear, he merely changed form. He left his previous meat suit and is part of existence in a way I don’t understand yet but I know that “I”
will some day.
Very moving. Thank you. Reminding me to be kind.
What a beautiful teaching.
No one gets out alive. May we all live meaningfully and die joyfully.
Thank you. And, yes, spoiler alert!!! No one gets out of here alive …
(We tend to want to focus on the meaningful aspects of deceased friends’ lives too, i have noticed.)
Thank you for this wonderful article Luna, and especially for showing us, through your own example with Sandra, how we can help those who are not Buddhist, within their own spiritual tradition, die peacefully and joyfully; how we can gently guide them to generate virtuous minds like faith, refuge, love and compassion, thus giving them the best opportunity to take rebirth in a Pure Land. After all, Krishna, Jesus, Mary et al were all just emanations, right?!
I am glad you said this — I was hoping it might be a good example of how we can help anyone, adapting to their faith as far as we understand it. Faith is a virtuous mind for everyone. I was seeing Krishna as an emanation of Heruka in my own mind.
Yes, that’s helpful too: While guiding them through their own faith, from our side we see their object of refuge as an emanation of Buddha, Heruka, Vajrayogini, Tara… In this way, we are practicing purely. Thanks again!
….thank-you, Lucy, I was lucky enough to be around back in September 1997 , to calm my Mother’s terminal agitation, get her back into bed , and hold her hand as she quickly and peacefully passed onwards…..
That is very lucky timing.
Thank you Luna, it is such a privilege to be with someone when they die and so important to keep talking to them, this is the last sense to go and when they can respond with a smile and hopefully a happy mind, while we recite mantras for them. You have such a beautiful way with words Luna and hearing of your experiences with dying loved ones is invaluable to us all. Especially thinking of your Mum at this time. 🙏🏼💚
Yes, absolutely, they can still hear — which is why we need to encourage people not to cry loudly in their presence but stay as peaceful and reassuring as possible for their sake. The dying time has to be their time. We’ll have time to grieve and cry later.
I appreciate you thinking of my Mum 😊
Thank you Luna. I can say that having watched my mother die these five long years – that had she she not died in peace, feeling loved, grateful and eager to see what came next, I would be in a. very different place. But she died, having lived a life where she spewed her vile onto all that came into her contact, peacefully as hundreds of kind Kadampa’s made prayers and did transference on consciousness. It just goes to show that even evil karma can be purified, and guess what? I received a sign not to recently that Mum was in a very, very good place. Thank you.
“Where does everyone go?” The answer isn’t necessarily a place of peace. Rebirth in a lower realm is terrifying. The experience of bardo can be indescribably scary. I’ve almost completed my second reading of “Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully” (motivated by contemporaries dying all around me and my parents’ generation virtually gone). Contrary to the upbeat spirit of the title, there’s much in this book that warns us to prepare now. The consequences of today’s laziness (or worse) are unimaginably horrid and virtually everlasting. Similar to how I find the meditation on death downright exhilarating in this life, I find the contemplation of after-death an invitation to do what I can right now to avoid very long nightmares in all my future lives. Thank you for an existential wake-up call.