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TOPIC: Death and Dying

Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 07:40 #111896

This is partly a reading recommendation, but partly just to open up any musings on the subject people might have, including other reading recommendations...

I've been reading a book by a French journalist named Nicolas Diat called "A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life" - he spends time in monasteries around France talking to the monks about death and dying. I'm finding it really moving and honest. Here are a few quotes I liked so far:

“The monks who do well are those who know that we are all a little damaged. In a monastery, we often have a little account to settle with normality”, the Father Abbot confided in me.

"Brother Joseph became incapable of holding a conversation. He no longer knew his own name or those of others. For his part, Father Efflam no longer had control of the threads of his own life, but he had not forgotten anything about those of others. He remained capable of having endless discussions about the history of France and the geography of some distant country. The two men spent their days together. Alone, they were lost, disoriented, unhappy. But when the brother infirmarian placed the hand of one in that of the other, they would go for a walk together on the little paths that surrounded the monastery. In church, Father Efflam and Brother Joseph were recollected, focused. They resembled children learning to pray. In the afternoon, they sat beside each other, always in the same place, and they talked for hours, about everything and nothing."

"If you look after a patient going to bed two hundred times a year, it is difficult to maintain the same attentiveness as during the early days. We are not looking to avoid the facts. The infirmary monks need to be vigilant so as not to transform a brother into a thing they take care of mechanically and as quickly as possible. The risk of commodification of the sick exists. I must pray to keep the strength of my desire to serve awake. Father Andry is Christ. When we come before God, we will be accountable for our charity toward the weakest. I need to know how to lose my time for the sick. In life, giving freely is essential. Christ said that the man who loses his life gains it. When I enter the room, I stroke his hand to revive our brotherhood; and I tell him: ‘Ah, Brother Bernard, you are my brother, my beloved brother, my big brother!’ ”

"he described his vision of the monastic ideal: “Becoming a child implies a change, an effort, real work. This transformation, however, is the indispensable condition for entering into the family of God, into his sanctuary, into the kingdom of heaven, for entering into this game that is the monastic life. But spiritual childhood, of what does it consist? In a word, it is made of simplicity, trust, complete abandonment in the hands of God. . . . Thus, the monastic life is a life made for children. The monastic life is a game, the great game of charity. In a game, it is necessary to respect the rules; it is the same in the monastic life. The monastic life is a game played with God and with those the Lord has chosen to lead to the monastery, those we call our brothers."

"If immediate consciousness can weaken, Dom Forgeot is convinced conversely that “the meaning of prayer remains until the final moment. Prayer is a surrender into the hands of God. How could it stop at the very moment when the encounter approaches? A patient with a brain tumor can no longer say the rosary. But the intention of the act, which consists in wanting to be with Mary, cannot change. The forms of meditation and contemplation change, the essence remains the same. The comatose monk still lives with God. The mystery of death and resurrection is at the center of his life.”

Anyway, just some tidbits.

I have a rather odd fondness for funerals. When I first converted I used to work for a group run by the archdiocese that prayed at funerals in the main cemeteries. I found it very touching, though I found the group very hard to 'get' - a common problem for me here, where there is a social dynamic in large groups that I find mystifying. Anyway, I gave it up after a while out of sheer confusion, but the actual part of attending to the grieving families in the cemetery chapels I thought very sweet. I still enjoy going to funeral Masses. I do wish they would use the Requiem Mass! It's a work of art, and profound prayer. It's been 'updated', like much else. Ah well. I have some friends lined up to sing the old rite for me when I die. I can sing it for them, too.
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 11:43 #111898

My musings on this topic are that I am very scared of dying. In the past year, I have been acutely aware of the fact that I am well on the other side of my life. I am totally healthy but I can feel the clock ticking. It makes me sad.

For reading, I came across this the other night, and which sounds like an interesting experiment:

www.theglobeandmail.com/life/first-perso...ing/article38200712/
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 17:44 #111900

Interesting. One of the main reasons I started meditating was to cope with the terror and disorientation that resulted from my dad dying (followed in quick succession by a friend our age who had a terrible accident, my husband having a non fatal accident, both our cats dying, and my favorite horse dying). I remember feeling utterly unprepared, and wanting to somehow find a way to calm down and prepare myself for my own inevitable end. One of the most striking things to me was how suddenly things changed: that is, when my dad was alive he carefully kept a very tidy house, full of good literature, with all his nice tools arranged properly in the garage. When he was gone, we had to sort everything fast - we all lived far away and had work. The house needed to be sold to pay debts. It turned out to need a new roof and so on. The books - everyone had a huge collection already. We all (and some friends) took a few. But then they went to the curb in boxes for foragers to take. The nice tools were great, but I lived in an apartment in the city, my sister already had her own collection of necessary tools, none of us did shop work...they were sold for a few hundred dollars at a garage sale. Just to mention a few concrete examples of things he was obsessed with caring for and fussing over that in the end were ashes and dust, just like him. And that totally freaked me out. I knew then that all this stuff I get so fussed about (projects, clothes, what people think of me, etc.) will one day, any day, also be ashes and dust. So that started me meditating.

I must say it has worked, at least in theory. I am not afraid to die in the abstract, at least. That said, when I was attacked by a dog a couple years ago I fought for my life, on pure instinct. But the attack was also brought on by stepping in front of the dog to protect some kids it was attacking, which wasn't something I thought through, but in hindsight just seemed like the kind of thing I was brought up to do, and that anyone in my family would have done. That to say, how we think about death in the abstract (or in a slow situation like "maybe I have cancer") is likely quite different from dealing with an emergency. There have been times in meditation when I literally thought I was going to die, or when I wanted to die, being either in one of those states of terror that can sometimes arise, or in a longer bout of depression which I seem to have some tendency towards. But that's also different than actually being in a crisis or actually being in the doctor's office and getting bad test results.

Anyway, that article is interesting, Tom. I've heard of similar sorts of practices (Saint Gertrude did something similar, a priest I know said they used to have to do a similar exercise in seminary).

I was thinking earlier today how some people get really freaked out about the end of the world (by whatever causes), and wondering if such a reflection isn't a good idea: If the world were absolutely for sure going to end on Saturday, what would you do differently than you are already doing? Why? Is that really important? Why? That sort of thing.

I don't think I'd do anything differently right now. Not sure if that's a momentary opinion or if I'd say the same in a week. Though it would be nice to touch base with friends to thank them for being part of my life and all that. (A good reminder to myself to do that more often!)
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 18:14 #111901

As it stands right now, there is probably a whole lot I would do differently if I only had, say, 3 months to live, or if I were to die on Saturday. I think that it would be unusual for someone to have their decks cleared for something like that.

And I too have hoped that mediation might help me with my fear of dying, but really it has just put a finer point on it. Yes, I am now far, far more aware about happiness, and the relative importance of some things over others. Which is not to say I am happy or always prioritize some things over others. But I try not to simply go through the motions anymore, and notice when I do. And which is also to say, I am not ready to die.

The root of my desire to pursue meditation was to discover, and then impart, some kind of wisdom to my children, so that they may lead better, more fulfilled lives. But I haven't (yet), and rather than some Yoda, they think I'm a jerk for limiting their wifi access and screen time. So clearly I have not even imparted on them the wisdom of "relative importance". Much to do, before I die.
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 18:51 #111902

The abstract fear of death is pretty much gone for me but I'm certain if someone tried to kill me or I was diagnosed with terminal cancer I'd be mightily afraid. As for the experience of death, that's a different animal. After having literally managed my father's last few minutes of life, preventing the medical folks from trying to save him from a heart attack we all knew was coming, I'm no longer afraid of the experience, though I was before that. I'm not indifferent to death but I am more familiar with it now.
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 19:28 #111903

We were forbidden television when I was a kid. I thought it very unfair. But I appreciated it later (like when I was 35... lol).
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Death and Dying 04 Dec 2019 23:03 #111904

Chris Marti wrote:
The abstract fear of death is pretty much gone for me but I'm certain if someone tried to kill me or I was diagnosed with terminal cancer I'd be mightily afraid. As for the experience of death, that's a different animal. After having literally managed my father's last few minutes of life, preventing the medical folks from trying to save him from a heart attack we all knew was coming, I'm no longer afraid of the experience, though I was before that. I'm not indifferent to death but I am more familiar with it now.

The finality of it is what is most disturbing to me.
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Death and Dying 05 Dec 2019 07:35 #111906

Tom, the finality of death is something I used to fear but somehow the experience of realizing that there's nothing here and now that's permanent - that everything is fleeting - has helped remove that fear. This isn't something I expected. It's some kind of side benefit. I also watched both of my parents suffer and death relieved that for them. I saw my mother wither away over the course of a few years (Alzheimer's), and my father knew his death was near and he accepted it gracefully. Seeing those things helps, too. It's like any other thing we experience. We get used to the thought of it, the intellectual process, upon being exposed to it more often. As my father processed his situation we would talk about it. He had outlived all of his siblings and watched as most of his friends passed away. He thus grew an acceptance of death and a willingness to face it that I found healthy and admirable.
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Death and Dying 05 Dec 2019 13:56 #111907

Tom Otvos wrote:
As it stands right now, there is probably a whole lot I would do differently if I only had, say, 3 months to live, or if I were to die on Saturday. I think that it would be unusual for someone to have their decks cleared for something like that.

This is actually a REALLY good thing to think about and motivate your lived life. The specter of death is probably the most best awesomest teacher ever.

A good life basically means being okay with dying in this minute. I think this is a realistic goal. Unusual, but this whole group here is unusual :)

-- oops, looks like the link I gave (which was a deep link to a book page) expires after a while... I'll try to find a link to Ken McLeod's one minute death meditation...
Last Edit: 05 Dec 2019 15:16 by shargrol.
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Death and Dying 05 Dec 2019 16:01 #111908

... this whole group here is unusual...

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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 06:25 #111912

And some are more unusual than others. :)
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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 06:56 #111913

I'm not finding a link to the one minute your dead meditation that I mentioned above. It's in Wake Up to Your Life, including other "awareness of the inevitability and unpredictability of death" meditations.
Last Edit: 06 Dec 2019 06:56 by shargrol.
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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 08:31 #111917

... some are more unusual than others...

I like to think I'm at least a two sigma deviation :P
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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 08:37 #111918

At least.
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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 09:05 #111919

Yeah, anyway, is this close to the Ken McLeod material:

http://yeolde.unfetteredmind.org/retreat-teachings-death-impermanence-3/
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Death and Dying 06 Dec 2019 10:22 #111922

I was originally going to link to this in the "Reading/Listening recommendations" section, but it turns out to be strangely appropriate here.

For 10 years or so, there was a great radio program on CBC, late at night, called The Signal. The host, Laurie Brown, had this hypnotic voice that I just loved listening to, and she mixed talking with playing generally pretty eclectic (I guess by that I mean not mainstream) music. I suppose it was a show like what you would think of when you hear about late night FM radio "back in the day". Anyhow, sadly, The Signal ended about 2 years ago. I missed Laurie Brown. Well, it turns out, she started up a podcast called Pondercast, which I only just found out about a few days ago. It was through researching that that I came across the article, penned by her, on the experiment of living like you were about to die that I posted here earlier.

I have been listening to the podcast from start to finish now, but initially I just cherry picked a few of the recent episodes based on their titles. And I was going to recommend the podcast on AN because *all* of the episodes I picked ended up having strong dharma components to them. Not officially Buddhist dharma, but anyone familiar with that stuff will recognize it immediately. That was *most* unexpected, and very pleasantly welcome. It was a nice companion to raking leaves. So then I downloaded all the episodes and have been listening to them from the beginning. Interestingly, the earlier episodes are very much like The Signal, only in podcast form, distinctly different from the latest ones. To my surprise, this podcast has been around since mid-2017.

And so, why am I writing about this here? This morning, the episode I had queued up was simply called "Death". It was recorded at the beginning of 2018, and is incredible. I don't know what the universe is trying to tell me, with my recent thinking about death, and then Ona starting this topic, and then this episode pops up. But the person she is talking with here has some really profound things to say that strike some really strong chords with me.

www.pondercast.ca/episode/death

I hope you find it as interesting as I did.
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Death and Dying 07 Dec 2019 12:40 #111924

Just finished listening... wow, really good/thought provoking.
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Death and Dying 07 Dec 2019 14:24 #111925

LIfe somehow provides reference, synchronicity and grounding...

My oldest son's wife's mom had an aortic aneurysm early this week. She had open-heart surgery for this event on Wednesday morning. She has never woken up, thought still technically "alive" she has little neurological activity and cannot communicate in any way, has no pupil response to light stimuli. It seems the calcification in her arteries, combined with the surgery, caused many brain hemorrhages during the surgery. These two young people now face a life/death decision together. Her mom had a very clear DNR in place so things are made easier, but "easier" under these situations is a ridiculously useless term.

Just posting this here because it's close to being related, I think. It's a reminder. Life is uncertain and can be taken from anyone at any time. we don't think that way which is why death-related practices exist.
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Death and Dying 07 Dec 2019 15:41 #111926

The person in that linked podcast talks about our "death-phobic" culture, which is so very, very true. I think it would be useful to deeply think on why one is afraid (as I am) of death.
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Death and Dying 07 Dec 2019 18:58 #111927

More on Stephen Jenkinson, the "death doula" in that podcast. If you download the NFB app (National Film Board of Canada), you can see a documentary on him called "Griefwalker". It is over 10 years old, but still: one interesting man.
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Death and Dying 10 Dec 2019 16:47 #111930

I finished that book. It was a rare book that I wished were twice as long. Maybe I'll read it again sometime. A couple extra things stuck with me, paraphrasing here:

One is an abbot saying (as he talks to the author about the different deaths of monks in his monastery over the years) that it's all very nice that we (when we are not suffering) are full of wise advice about suffering. But when you sit at the bedside of someone who is suffering terribly it's best to just shut up and keep them company.

Another was several abbots talking about the challenges of dealing with medical treatment, since the monks usually have a very deep spiritual life, and part of their practice is preparing to die well, and certainly includes many years of embracing suffering and using that as a part of practice, so constantly being hauled off to the hospital or having an emergency team run into the room every time they have a worsening of their condition (for instance, they are just a few weeks from death from cancer, but suddenly have a minor stroke) can be a really disruptive thing to the practice. As can, one said, the tendency of medical teams to want to over-sedate people so that they don't feel anything, which means you can't maintain consciousness. So they have to think carefully about the context, and develop relationships with the doctors in the area hospitals so that they can ask for the monk to come home to die in the abbey, or decide together to stop making heroic interventions when the overall condition is 'going to die soon'.

There were also some interesting details about the burials (some orders do not use names on the graves, because their practice of humility includes not wanting any fame or attention after death either. Some orders don't use coffins, again for the sake of spiritual and material poverty. That sort of thing.

And I really liked the whole continuity of the rituals of prayer during the dying, with the monks taking turns sitting vigil at the bedside. It reminded me of a book I have at home from the 1920s or 30s that has the prayers to say at the bedside of a dying person (for family members, regular lay people to use). It's pages and pages of 'guided meditation' in a sense. I might prefer everyone just be quiet. I know a priest who works full time in a Catholic hospital. He wears a beige cassock instead of a black one, because he said people get too terrified when they see the priest coming, thinking "Oh no! They've called the priest! I'm done for!" He found they tended to panic less if he was wearing beige. I know another one who attends people wearing the standard black cassock. He said they find it reassuring, because they know they are in professional hands, as it were.
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Death and Dying 10 Dec 2019 21:36 #111931

I had forgotten you were talking about another book, because I, in turn, am reading a book by Stephen Jenkinson called "Die Wise". For a minute, I thought you were talking about that though I did not recognize those passages. I am only partway through mine and will say, I am regretting getting the audiobook. While I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him on the podcast, when he is simply reading, he is not as good a storyteller as when he is telling stories. I am surprised by that, but there you go.

The book is interesting and thought provoking, but at times a bit heavy handed. I'll hold off any further comment until I am done.
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