Creating Virtue at the End of Life

A few posts back, I wrote about a person close to me who is dying. We’ve reached the hospice part of the process now, where it has been acknowledged that death is approaching, changes are going to happen, and the comfort of the patient is paramount.

I watched someone close to me die several years ago. It was clear from the start that he was restless. He suffered with karmic appearances of frightful things that came to him during the night, then, closer to death, during the day as well.  He had not generated good karma in this life, and it was easy to see that he was suffering. It was very painful to watch.

But the experience gave me insight into being with the dying in a loving, compassionate way. We shouldn’t ignore opportunities to help the dying create virtue for themselves before they transition. If we really want to help a loved one, encourage him or her to be honest, generous, and kind – yes, even as they’re dying. Helping them create virtue at the end of life is a gift whose goodness reaches into eternity. Dying with a peaceful mind ripens good karma and determines rebirth. This is better than any medicine.

Some believe that death is the absolute end of being, that from someone you become no one, but Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explains death in the context of transition. Our notion of death – that it obliterates life – cannot be applied to reality, because the reality is that all existence is cyclical:

It’s a wet, windy day. I look up to the sky, and see a cloud. If I keep watching, eventually, the cloud will dissolve. It may dissolve into the rain, or the winds may pry it apart. Whatever causes it to change, we can’t say that the cloud has become nothing. The cloud has transformed; it’s continued existence in another form – as rain, or another, smaller cloud. It hasn’t gone from being to non-being. Life is a continuum.

By helping a dying person see this, you can touch his or her life in the here and now, and help set them free. Rather than hovering at their bedside and grieving, rejoice with them at the love they shared so they can go forward into their next life with love and compassion for all beings.

The pujas and ceremonies that we do after someone dies are all good. But once the one we loved has transitioned, don’t keep their energy focused here. If they leave possessions to you, make charity of those possessions and dedicate the merit for the person’s good rebirth, liberation, and full awakening. Do dharma practices and dedicate the merit for their wellbeing instead of our own (for example, practice the Metta Bhavana).

We can rejoice having had that person in our lives for as long as we did, the virtue we created together, and the love we shared. We can take all that love that was shared, and share it with everybody else. We can take the love and pay it forward.

Live in peace.

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