The person who probably knows me best in this world has said to me several times over the years, “You do death better than anyone I know.”
It takes me back when she says it because I find the experience of being with a loved one as they make their transition, losing their presence in my life, even saying goodbye to my darling furry friends to be extremely intense emotionally, physically and mentally. I understand why people avoid these experiences.
I was already a yoga practitioner and in the process of my internship for yoga teacher certification when my mother made her transition. Following my intuition, I flew across country to be with her and my father, arriving late on a Wednesday night. When Dad took me to the hospital the next day, I knew she was dying even though we had not been told that yet. She had only just been admitted the day before though she had previously been in cancer treatment. Four days later, at 4:10 a.m. on Sunday she passed away in my arms. My one wish for her was that she not die alone because she had feared that all her life. It was my privilege to be her companion those last hours.
The intensity almost overwhelmed me at one point. I put my head down on the side of her bed and had trouble breathing. My yoga training helped and I was able to soften my rib cage and begin to breathe to my belly. I made it and was holding her in my arms as her last whisper of breath passed her lips.
My father died at home with minimal hospice care. I was alone with him as well though he left as I entered the room that last night to kiss him goodnight. The experience with him was equally intense but in very different ways and I was privileged to be his companion in death as well.
After my mother’s death, I called my mentor and teacher, Joseph LePage, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy. We shared such a sweet time on the phone and his love and compassion soothed my weary soul. I was exhausted on every level. Joseph directed me to a wonderful book titled The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. This book enlightened me to the experience I had just had with my mother and prepared me to be present with my father in an even more mindful way when he made his transition.
The most powerful thing I remember from that book is the Buddhist practice of “watering the seeds of your loved one’s happiness.” It is simple. You talk with them about your loving memories of their life and your times with them. For example, before we brought Dad home, while he was still conscious, I sat with him and reminded him of when I was a little girl and would get a splinter in my finger or hand. Once when I was about five years old, I waited all afternoon for him to come home. Mom offered to do it and told me it would be a long time until he came home. Nope. I would wait. My dad had very large hands and, as he told me late in his life, the thought of taking a splinter out of my tiny finger scared him. He did it anyway because I needed him to be the one. How sweet is that! My big, strong Daddy faced his fears of hurting me in order to help me. My loving, tender Mommy lived with her own pain to let me wait for my Daddy instead of forcing her will on me so that she didn’t have to watch me wait. Dad loved that I remembered that.
When Mom was dying, we sat around her hospital bed and told so many funny stories about her life and ways. She was a brilliant woman with an outrageous sense of humor. We didn’t know we were watering the seeds of her happiness and preparing her to leave her body in a place of love and happiness. In Buddhist tradition, this is the best way to go. Love and laughter draw the awareness to the highest chakras in the body. This is the goal so that the life force energy, the soul or spirit, leaves through the crown chakra.
When Dad was dying and his grandchildren visited, I taught them how to water the seeds of his happiness by telling him their favorite memories. He was not obviously conscious but I knew that didn’t matter on the soul level. So many wonderful stories. He was quieter than my mother and grew very wise with the passing of years. We all cherished them both and they knew our love as they made their transitions, which were quiet and peaceful. I wouldn’t trade those days and hours for anything because, as they always had, they taught me how to live well, even as they were dying.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying also teaches the continuation of this practice for forty days after the physical death. The purpose of watering the seeds of happiness after death is to support the loved one in their initial transition into the next life. I have embraced this practice because I believe there is more to life than this physical existence and it is such a beautiful way to spend those first weeks after such a profound loss. I maintain it years after their deaths because it continues to soothe my heart and mind. It is preparing me to die as peacefully as I live.
Perhaps this practice is why my sister-friend tells me I do death so well…because I have found what works for me. Watering the seeds of my parents’ and others’ happiness waters the seeds of my happiness as well. And the seeds sown during the experience of physical death produce the most amazing fruits in my life: divine compassion, understanding, deeper awareness of the Divine within me and others, the importance of mindful presence in this moment, and a lack of fear when contemplating my own eventual death. These are only a few of the gifts received in these experiences. Some seem to be quite beyond my ability to articulate them.
To be mindful in the moment is to embrace and experience each moment without trying to control what that moment contains. Be not afraid for Love is with you All Ways and each moment comes with gifts you cannot even begin to imagine until they arrive!