Death - Facing Death Finding Life
by Jamuna Rangachari
If disasters and deaths are on the rise in kaliyug, we need to learn to cope with and grow through the passage of loved ones by understanding the concept of impermanence.
Lakshmi and Anand Srinivasan were extremely happy. Lakshmi was expecting their first child within a year of their marriage, something they had ardently wished for. Lakshmi gave up her job as accounts professional so that she could bond with the child from the inception itself - and both were completely involved in the entire process. When the time came, both their parents were close by and rushed Lakshmi to the hospital, one of the most reputed in Chennai. A beautiful boy was born. Before they could rejoice, a strange affliction, meconium aspiration syndrome, was seen in the baby. The doctors immediately put the baby on life support systems but told the couple and their parents, "The outcome is not in our hands." In spite of the prayers of family and friends, the baby died within 24 hours.
"Why did this happen? What did we do wrong?" was their first reaction. Then came anger. "Could the doctors have done something to avoid it?" Gradually, wisdom dawned. They began to accept that it was God's prerogative to decide when life would be taken away. Looking back at her pregnancy, Lakshmi says, "I surely matured enormously during this period and felt extremely peaceful and serene. Without conscious effort, spiritual practices became part of my life."
Drawing the analogy of the brothers of Bheeshma in the Mahabharata who were drowned by their mother, Ganga, as soon as they were born because she knew that they were destined to be in this world only for a while, she says, "I am sure that the soul who was in my womb was a great one and I feel blessed to have shared such a unique bond with him." Anand, an IT professional and a deeply religious person, realized that he needed to learn how to 'surrender' to God's will. "I prayed that I should get a wonderful child and was sure my prayer would be answered - indeed it was, but God took him away immediately. I learnt that prayer for a particular purpose is limiting. What we actually need to pray for is the ability to accept God's will," he says.
The entire episode brings to mind a wonderful story, What men live by, by Leo Tolstoy. An angel is sent to earth by God to learn a few lessons, one of which is, "What is not given to man." Through his experience, the angel learns that, "It is not given to man to know his own needs." Explains Tolstoy, "It is not given to any man to know whether, when evening comes, he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse."
Groping while Coping
Most people go through several stages while coping with death - denial, anger, depression and finally, acceptance. Of course, as with most other things in life, these stages are not fixed in sequence. Often, people toggle from one stage to another, struggling to remain in a state of acceptance. Since time immemorial, spiritual masters and philosophers have said and written much on how to reach and remain in a state of acceptance. The classic tale of the Buddha, where he asks a woman mourning the death of her son, to bring a single mustard seed from a house where there has never been any death, is an example.
Today, on one hand, we see advances in medical science and a seemingly greater 'control' on the factors governing our lives. But then, we also see death happening everyday, all over the world. This is, of course, partly due to the widespread reach of the media. After all, famines, droughts, earthquakes and battles happened in earlier times too, but now we know the exact location, damage and struggles of the deceased and the survivors. We also see how different cultures cope differently with the challenges.
With this, slowly but surely, a perceptible shift to coping with tragedy through spirituality is taking place.
As a young adult, Christine Longaker coped with the death of her husband from a terminal illness. Finding peace in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, she has dedicated her life to helping others experiencing such crucial transitions. In her book, Facing Death and Finding Hope, she says, "The moment of death and the period afterward are of enormous spiritual significance. When you engage in religious practice, do it with awareness and an intention to help the deceased." For instance, the lighting of a lamp or candle, a tradition in most world religions, is meant to help light up the soul's journey, while it is still groping and is most receptive to our offerings of prayer.
Whatever our belief systems may be, it is clear that by focusing on helping the departed soul, our own grief vanishes slowly but steadily.
Commodore Purkayastha was a fit and energetic man and so, both he and his wife, Ruma, could not believe it when the doctor told them after a routine test, that he was suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. But almost immediately, he accepted the situation and concentrated on giving his family the strength to cope with the current
situation and his impending death. Within two months, he passed away. "It was his strength that pushed me into quickly bouncing back to a normal life," says Ruma. "It is also very important that one deals with all the decisions
independently and plunges into activity at the earliest, so that there is no vacuum in one's life." Though she has an extremely supportive family, she is leading an independent life as headmistress of a Delhi-based Naval school, and is thus fulfilling her husband's wish. She is also grateful that the diagnosis was done later, as he thus led a normal life for a much longer period.
When Mumbai-based Anita Dusija, the mother of a young teenage daughter, suddenly lost her husband, Sunil, she was shell-shocked. Her greatest fear was facing the future without a companion. But soon, with the help of her spiritual guide, Promila Gurtu, she began to focus on the present - taking one day at a time. Stopping self-pity from creeping in, she treated the 'chautha' ceremony in its spiritual sense - as the day when the soul moves on to its next journey. "With deep love, I learnt to connect to his higher self - the spirit, and wished him well on his journey," she says.
Sharon and Susan D' Sousa (names changed to protect identity), had been brought up single-handedly by their mother, as their father had died very young. Sharon works for a Kuwait-based school while Susan is a finance professional in Bangalore. Extremely close to their mother, they convinced her to opt for early, voluntary retirement from service, as both of them were now financially independent. "You just relax now," they said. That was not to be.
Even before the retirement formalities were completed, their mother was diagnosed with leukemia. The family struggled for a year, praying to Jesus to help them cope. Despite knowing that it was a terminal illness, hope continued to linger, this time in the form of a wish that she would live on at least until they fulfilled her long cherished dream of sharing their lives with a worthy partner.
This also did not happen and the end, when it came, seemed so unfair, so premature. Slowly, however, they learnt to connect to her higher self, realising that, even if she was not present in this world physically, her presence was still with them. Almost miraculously, both of them got married within a few months, to boys their mother would have been proud to have as sons-in-law. They are sure that it was her blessings that made this possible and connect to her even more strongly now.
Susan says, "In a need to feel more of her with me, I try to do all the things in my life that she would have done and go that extra yard for my husband and his family." They continue to feel her presence in a myriad ways. "As she was so full of an abundant goodness of heart, the flow of guidance from her to us is still there in mysterious un-speakable ways," says Sharon.
When Delhi-based Lata Krishna-murthi lost her father to whom she was very close, suddenly, she was shattered. At first, she was extremely depressed and did not even wish to go through all the prescribed rituals. "Why now? What next?" were the questions that haunted her. A lawyer by profession with a totally rationalist attitude, she had to seek the answers herself. Reading various spiritual texts, she found her answers in the dialog between Yama and Nachiketa in the Kathopanishad. This was the first step in her spiritual journey and today, she is an ardent seeker, slowly but surely evolving to a different level of consciousness.
Coming back to the lady who lost her son, failure to find a single home with no death, spurred her to embark on a spiritual journey. Realizing that this world is impermanent and seeking an end to the cycle of suffering, she joined the Buddha's order and diligently followed his teaching. Before her death, she attained enlightenment, proving the truth of the saying from a medieval book called the Craft of Dying, "Learn to die and thou shalt learn how to live."