One of my readers asked me to write about living with terminal illness.
Since, I haven’t faced the shock of a terminal diagnosis myself, punishing rounds of treatment to forestall an ultimately incurable illness, or the emotional turbulence that insists upon coming along with a final prognosis, I wondered what I could write that wouldn’t seem intellectual, impersonal or trite.
At the same time, I think about impermanence often. I’ve studied the Buddhist teachings on death and dying. I’ve had moments I thought might be my last. And I spent a year wavering around 84 pounds, not sure whether my weight would go up or down.
So perhaps something I share today may provide comfort, bring insight, or help you release attachment to this life, whether you are facing terminal illness or not. Because learning to let go is crucial to finding a deep abiding peace whatever your stage of life.
What Do You Believe About Life and Death?
How you respond to and live with a terminal illness, will depend to a great degree upon what you believe about the purpose of life, what happens at death, and the strength of the emotional habits you’ve formed over the years.
Do you know what you believe about life and death?
I believe the purpose of this life is to work with my own mind and heart, to transform destructive thoughts, harmful emotions and negative behaviors into positive ones, and to learn to rest in the awareness of mind rather than all the passing chatter. Because the projections – thoughts and emotions – are transitory, whereas the awareness of mind continues beyond death.
I see the material aspects of life as secondary, a means to support the evolution of one’s awareness.
The onset of terminal illness, I believe, is the time to especially shift one’s emphasis to letting go of attachment, resting in the awareness of mind, and recognizing this body is but a transitory phenomena. Because you can’t die a peaceful death if you’re attached to your possessions, your body, the experiences of this life, and your family and friends.
The revelation of terminal illness, as shattering as it will probably feel at first, can serve as an urgent call to wake up, get in control of your thoughts, emotions, and habits, let go of attachments, and live your best life possible in every moment you have left.
I know it often won’t feel that way, but if you can keep returning to these tasks as a baseline and as your most essential purpose, life will have more meaning, your heart will open in love, and you will be able to face death with more confidence.
That’s what I believe about the purpose of life and how to prepare for death to arrive.
But the important thing is to be clear about what you believe. Because what you believe will determine the quality of this last part of your life. If you’re unsure, this is the chance to turn your attention to the spiritual side of your existence and begin a journey of discovery.
How do you you want to live and die? Just like many people live on automatic, you can deal with a terminal illness on automatic too. You can die on automatic too. But is that what you want?
Presence: The Way to Find Peace in Life and Death
Three words – presence, compassion, and grace – came to me in one of those liminal moments as the essence of this piece. They represent how I want to live, how I would like to be should I face a terminal diagnosis (as opposed to a sudden death), and how I would like to die.
So let’s start by looking at what presence means and how it can radically change the flavor of your days.
Presence is the ability to be mindful and aware in the present moment without getting pulled into the past or future by thoughts and emotions. And, until it comes time to leave this body, I feel presence means being fully embodied not just floating around in mental activity.
I know from how my mind and heart are right now, I’ll go through many emotions when I learn of my own impending death, emotions like shock, anger, denial, regret, and, for me, especially fear. You can read more on releasing regrets here: How to Avoid the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.
The practice of mindfulness meditation settles the mind and emotions, but it doesn’t eradicate them entirely. Naturally, the thought of losing your life and all you hold dear will stir up your emotions to a fever pitch. Or you may move into numbness or denial, seemingly emotionless states.
When you practice mindfulness, you don’t suppress thoughts or emotions, but instead you develop the ability to bear witness to them without engaging them, becoming them, and allowing them to negatively influence your thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
In other words, don’t jump on the train of negative thought patterns and unhealthy emotional habits. That only creates suffering for yourself and others. This is not the way to a peaceful life or death. Instead, learn to observe whatever emotions appear, understand their transitory nature, and let them pass by.
This practice of equanimity is simple, but not necessarily easy, especially when you’re living with a terminal illness. You may feel heightened emotions in almost every interaction and experience as you try to figure out the right steps to take to extend your life as long as possible, provide for your survivors, or cope with changes in relationships or your work status.
Being human, you will lose it — sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days.
Whenever you get lost in the past, the future, or a swirl of emotions, the key is to just come back to the present moment and continue to practice awareness without self-criticism. Instead, be loving and gentle with yourself.
Through this repeated process of returning to the center of awareness, negative thoughts and emotions will lose their hold on you. Everyone has this native ability to be mindful, but it takes many repetitions for it to become your natural way of being.
The only place you can find peace is in the present moment.
Now is the time, if there ever was one, to actively train your mind so you can live and die in peace. Use whatever challenges you to practice enlightened qualities like patience, tolerance, understanding, love, compassion, and the practice of presence. If you do, you will be using this last part of your life in the best possible way, to become a better human being as well as a more evolved spirit.
Realize Your Full Potential Through Compassion
I believe we cannot realize our full spiritual potential without activating compassion, the wish for everyone to be free of suffering and the commitment to do all we can to relieve their suffering.
A terminal diagnosis can easily become all about “me.” A cascade of alluring emotions will do its best to engage you and keep you occupied with yourself. You’ll most likely be drawn to doing everything you can to extend your life. You may become very busy in the activity of staying alive. As your life force weakens, you’ll probably struggle with fatigue and pain as well.
However, an over focus on the self often brings more emotional distress and may even exacerbate pain.
How can you use your last days on earth – whether they add up to weeks, months or years – to reduce self-cherishing and cultivate a compassionate heart, thereby putting emotional suffering to rest?
One way is to shift your focus from your own suffering to relieving the suffering of others through the practice of giving and receiving, known as “Tonglen” in Tibetan. While the intent of this practice is to benefit others, this simple method of breathing in suffering and sending your happiness out on the breath may also bring you relief and make your journey toward death more meaningful.
The following instructions describe how to practice giving and receiving on the breath for all beings. But you could instead practice for a single individual or for everyone who suffers with your same disease, if you wish.
Sometimes, visualize that your heart is a brilliant ball of light. As you breath out, it radiates rays of while light in all directions, carrying your happiness to all beings. As you breathe in, their suffering, negativity, and afflictions come toward you in the form of dense, black light, which is absorbed into your heart and disappears in its brilliant while light without a trace, relieving all beings of their pain and sorrow. – The Heart of Compassion, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Through this practice of exchanging oneself and others, you’ll gradually dissolve your own self-cherishing and transform your negative emotions, which will lead to more happiness in life and more peace at death. The practice will also soften your heart and gradually gives rise to an unstoppable love as vast as the sky.
And isn’t that the best way to meet death, in a state of expansive love?
Create the Space for Grace to Arise
What is grace? I feel grace is an expansive feeling of love, connectedness, and deep knowing that occurs when we are centered in awareness. It occurs when we let go of the conceptual mind and no longer feel lured into attachment or aversion by what we perceive within and around us.
Many people think grace or blessings come from a source outside ourselves. But I believe that we create the space for grace to manifest through letting go, again and again.
These are some ways you can invite grace along as you journey through the last stages of your life or actually in any part of your life.
The practice of presence itself creates the space for grace. Know that every moment is a small death, an opportunity to let go of what came before and to resist anticipating the future.
When we live without preconceptions, anything is possible and so the door to grace opens. In 2006, one of my friends was given three days to live. Three days! Can you imagine? He’s still alive today, more than ten years later. Another friend was put into hospice, but she didn’t die. Despite the severity of her cancer scans, she kept living for another five years. You can read her formula for a sweet life here.
I’m not sharing these stories to give false hope, but to illustrate how letting go of preconceptions can allow grace to enter into one’s life. It may not happen in a dramatic way as in these stories. It may come as small moments of grace, when you let go of your concepts about another person or what is going to happen next.
When we resolve unfinished business, we also create room for grace to appear. Try not to leave this world with anger in your heart. Make it a point to process unfinished emotional business before you go.
Make a list of people with whom you have unfinished business. If it’s not wise to converse with them in person, you can visualize each person who troubles you and quietly tell them everything you would like to say before you depart. Then put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they would respond. Dialog in this imaginary way until you feel a sense of reconciliation or resolution.
In the same way, don’t forget to express your love, appreciation, and gratitude. When life gets busy, it’s easy to forget to say, “I love you.” Be sure to express your gratitude to everyone who has helped you in this life.
When you give away all your possessions, you create multiple chances for grace to arise as well. You can’t take it with you, right? So don’t let attachment to possessions get in the way of leaving this world with grace. Start giving away your possessions. And don’t concern yourself with what will happen to it all after you’re gone when you’ll no longer have any control.
Just imagine how light and free you’ll feel without all the stuff and the worries that go along with it.
When you get your affairs in order, you won’t leave a mess for anyone else. You’ll also take a load off of your mind, and grace loves to appear when the mind is spacious. Do you have a living will? A last will and testament? Are your papers in order?
When you accept that you are moving on and let go of your attachments to your loved ones, you also create so much space for grace to manifest. This is the big one, isn’t it? But it doesn’t mean you stop loving. Quite the opposite, love as much as you can in these precious final moments, take the time to review your life, and be sure to say your good-byes.
When you accept that this body and indeed this life is but a transitory phenomena and feel ready to let go of your temporary abode, grace will arrive in full measure.
Grace will come when we let go of clinging to our possessions, our experiences, our body, our loved ones, our thoughts, and our emotions. You don’t have to wait to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. You can start letting go in any moment, and live your entire life in grace. But once you’ve been diagnosed, this is the best way focus your mind and heart during your remaining time.
How’s the State of Your Mind?
According to the Buddhist tradition, the state of your mind at the moment of death can influence your future.
At the moment of death, two there are two things that count: whatever we have done in our lives, and what state of mind we are in at that moment. Even if we have accumulated a lot of negative karma, if we are able really to make a change of heart at the moment of death, it can decisively influence our future and transform our karma, for the moment of death is an exceptionally powerful opportunity for purifying karma. – Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
So feel encouraged. If you work with your mind and heart now, you’ll be setting the positive wheels in motion for all the days and lives to come.
We all know we’re going to die, but we don’t know when or how. Most people choose to ignore that fact, assuming their end to be far off in the distance. But the truth is, you never know what will come next.
So whether you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness or not, decide right now what’s truly important in life. When you look back from your deathbed, what will really matter? Then put all your energies into it.
Do you have any stories to share about living or dying with presence, compassion, or grace? I would love to hear in the comments.
Sources and Related Reading
Note: These links are affiliate links. If you make a purchase using these links, I will make a small commission. Thank you so much for supporting my writing in this way.
- Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying
- On Death and Dying, What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Family
- The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free resources in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra