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Being With Dying

Sohrob Nabatian

Though most would agree with Benjamin Franklin’s maxim that “In this world nothing is certain except death and taxes,” mainstream culture has little to offer on how to prepare for the former. Without a shared, collective story about the ultimate human transition, the dying and their caregivers are left to orient themselves as they enter bewildering worlds of medical protocol, emotional upheaval and rapidly shifting existential landscapes. All too often, the busy settings of the hospital or nursing home do not provide for the dimensions of grace that can accompany dying, adding a layer of surreal fragmentation to an already overwhelming experience.

In response to these inadequate conventions, Joan Halifax is one of several spiritual teachers and professional caregivers calling for providing a more coherent and compassionate experience of death. Her 2008 book Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death offers accessible, practical guidance through the inner terrain of dying that applies equally to professional caregivers, relatives or loved ones, the dying themselves, and anyone inclined to explore this ultimate and inevitable passage.

Being With Dying addresses, with insight and sensitivity, the inner challenges of dying, from the denial of death to the fear of it, the feelings of shame, anger and powerlessness that may arise, communication breakdowns, and the struggle to find meaning in suffering. The book helps one to follow the maxim of authentic witness: “Don’t say anything, just sit there.” While Being with Dying does hold “liberation” as the greatest potential in dying, it does not peddle a facile, homogenous or spiritualized view of a “good death,” nor does it flinch from the physical, emotional and spiritual messiness of dying. Meeting the existential rawness of dying head-on, Halifax gently offers stories, practices and wisdom that orient the reader toward the deepest potential and heart-rending grace of being with dying.

As a Zen priest, Halifax uses a Buddhist framework, describing how the “Three Tenets” of not-knowing, bearing witness and compassionate action open the way to a more authentic and present engagement with dying. The book’s content, however, comes from Halifax’s decades of experience learning from the dying as a caregiver and trainer of caregivers at her Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. These stories and insights are both intimate and universal, and the meditations have been field-tested.

There are many excellent books on the medical, ethical and humanistic dimensions of dying, like Ira Byock’s Dying Well and Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. Being with Dying is unique in offering an intimate map of the inner psychological and spiritual aspects of dying. For the dying, the stories and practices give space, permission and structure to explore one’s own sacred needs, feelings and hopes. For the caregiver, Halifax provides meditative practices that deepen presence and witness, countering the reflex to distract oneself from the depth of emotion in the room. For anyone, the meditations on death, particularly the last three, shatter unexamined delusions of immortality and invite the reader into a visceral, sober, but tender relationship with impermanence.

This is a really helpful and accessible book. If you or someone you know imminently faces death, its treasury of stories, wisdom and practices offers a more coherent vision of dying, and help to get there. Even if you do not yet meet the above description, studying of the art of dying is not just for the dying or their caregivers. Engaging honestly and experientially with dying awakens the attentive mind to a fuller appreciation of the terminal diagnosis Halifax reminds us we all share: life.

Being with Dying focuses on the inner experience of dying and caring for someone who is dying. For detailed guidance into the bewildering range of medical decisions at end-of-life, a resource like Lynn & Harold’s The Handbook for Mortals (2006) will be more helpful.

See also, Fierce Grace, a film about Ram Dass, for a touching and personal contemplation on aging, illness, and loss.

Being With Dying
Joan Halifax
Shambhala Publications, 2008

Sohrob Nabatian studied pastoral counseling and psychology at Harvard Divinity School, and had the privilege of working as a hospital chaplain in Berkeley, California, where a dying man taught him to really taste a mango. Sohrob currently lives with his family in San Rafael, CA.

Read more about Sohrob Nabatian

Comments (1)
  • Thanks for this fine review. Another excellent resource is “Peaceful Dying: The Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Your Dignity, Your Choice, and Your Inner Peace at the End of Life” by Daniel R. Tobin, M.D.

    — Shams Kairys on June 11, 2009

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8 June 2009

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