I spent a full day this week at the hospital with a dear 82-year-old friend and her family. What I thought was going to be a one hour conference with the doctor, her family and myself, turned into eight hours of meditation and discussion about whether to resuscitate our friend should she stop breathing again. She had been resuscitated two times earlier in the week, and was being kept alive by the combination of breathing apparatus and feeding tube connected directly into her intestines.
In the end her sons made the final call. They decided to have her resuscitated if her breathing or heart failed again, and to keep her on the life support even while three different “super bugs” chewed through her body. For them they had to make a decision that would allow them to sleep at night. And not resuscitating her would have been tantamount to “giving up” in their minds. They weren’t ready to let go of their beloved mother.
This is a decision process that many of us will have to go through at some point with a loved one. We want to keep them with us as long as possible. And we also don’t want them to suffer. My friend’s son put it this way, “I am sure that ma doesn’t want to die, that I know. And I know that she doesn’t want to keep suffering like this.” Wouldn’t we all say that about ourselves and our loved ones. It’s human nature that we don’t want to die and we don’t want to suffer. So it’s hard to make decisions about when someone has had enough suffering and is ready to go.
The Buddha never commented on whether there was another life after this one. When asked, he kept silent. What he did say was, “I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.” And for the Buddha it was clear that clinging to anything in the realm of form, including our body or our loved one’s body, was a source suffering. And at the same time he taught that we don’t have a completely separate self or soul that continues intact. Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. We are not this body and we are also not something other than this body.
So where does that leave us in making end of life decisions? I can see that my friend is not this deteriorating body full of bedsores, MRSA, and failing digestive system. That is clear. So if she’s not in that body, then where can I find my friend?
Because she spent so much time with us and my kids while they were young, I find my friend in the twinkle in my kids’ eyes when then talk about how silly and feisty she was. I find her in my own resilience to difficulties as I watched her facing the psychiatric breakdown of one daughter and the homelessness of another. One of my go-to stories that makes me laugh and cry at the same time is this one: She was walking down the street one evening and heard a crack and felt wetness flowing down her neck. Realizing that she had been hit over the head by a would-be assailant and was bleeding, she kept her head up and continued to walk briskly to her destination. The attacker, who must have been shocked by the strength and stamina of this petite woman, fled. Even though it happened to her, it has given me courage through the years.
“You are like a candle. Imagine you are sending light out all around you. All your words, thoughts and actions are going in many directions. If you say something kind, your kind words go in many directions, and you yourself go with them. We are …transforming and continuing in a different form at every moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from No Death, No Fear
I also find my friend in the eyes and manners of her sons and her nieces. Sitting with them in the hospital for so many hours, there was no doubt in my mind that she was right there with us. The stories we told and the ways that we were changed by our interactions with her are permanent and will continue on through our own lives and through the energies and memories that we pass along to future generations. Even though we are empty we exist and we inter-are with and influence everything around us.
“If our boats are empty, though there is still a vessel carried by the prevailing winds and currents there is not ‘someone’ in it to be misunderstood…Everything is in perfect harmony. Nothing is pulling against the natural flow. No one in the boat: no one to suffer” – Stephen Levine, from Who Dies?
Seeing all of this, I know that I never have to let go of my friend. The outcome for all of us is the same. We will leave this fathom-long body at some point in the not so distant future. But because there is no “me” or “her” to let go of, there is no letting go. We are transforming and sending ourselves out in every moment of our lives. And the last moment, when we lose this body, is just another moment of transformation.