In recent weeks my meditation practice was put to the test. Together with my husband and five visiting family members, I hosted my brother’s hospice care in our home.
While I won’t go into detail about our experience, I do want to share the ways in which the regular practice of meditation supported me throughout that time and continues to support me now in my mourning of my beloved brother.
My gratitude for the practice started long before this intensive time in my life. I have been meditating for many years, and for many years I have been aware of how precious and finite our time together on this earth truly is. I bring this awareness into every relationship, and it deepens my appreciation and compassion.
At a recent poetry reading, while my brother was in the hospital, I read a poem I had written many years ago about our relationship.
We used to hum ourselves to sleep, my brother and I,
in the back of our old black ’54 Ford station wagon
where our father had fashioned us bunks upon the luggage,
or when we were lucky, in a real bed in a motor court,
or in a heavy green canvas tent by the bank of a stream where we,
with the industry of beavers, had built an unneeded dam.
Humming began low on the scale, each breath carrying us up a note,
until we reached the dizzying heights of our range
and plunged to the bottom again, that deep bass rumbling in our chests.
Humming was voodoo, ritual magic, a place where the day’s teasing died,
where small dark spaces relaxed into the boundless arms of the soft summer night,
and we were lured into dreaming by our own hypnotic drone.
Humming we greet each other now, tender huggy hums of delight,
hums that pour into our embrace all the precious frayed treasures
of that fragile someday-to-be-forgotten world of our beginnings.
– Stephanie Noble 2003
Written twenty-five years ago, that poem contained the seed of this moment, the understanding of the fleeting nature of life. I am grateful that I have always treasured every moment we’ve spent together in person and talking on the phone over the years of our adult life.
Recently I taught about the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, and during this hospice experience it helped me immeasurably to recognize that ‘this is like this because that was like that’. It seems so simple, so obvious, but how often in life do we get caught up in hurt feelings and blame because we are in the habit of not seeing or acknowledging all the causes and conditions that created the actions, words and current state of being of those around us?
In his last days, in pain, confusion and delusion, my brother sometimes lashed out with his words at times. It hurt, and is painful still when I think of it, I won’t lie. But I was also able to see how he was reverting to a childhood pattern we shared, one that we had grown out of (with help from his first wife who took us each aside and said ‘You know your (sister/brother) loves you, don’t you?’ We apparently didn’t! We had been so caught in a pattern of teasing and scolding and hurt feelings.) But here it was again, that old pattern arising. He would say my name in the same stern way he did when he was my twelve year old big brother: ‘Stephanie, sit down!’ I began to fear those words, to tremble the way I did as a child. I felt vulnerable because of my deep love, my anticipated loss and my exhaustion as all of us stretched ourselves to the limit of our capacity to learn how to be medical providers on the fly.
At times I cried and was comforted by the team, I could feel their upset on my behalf. What an ungrateful bastard my brother was when I was providing him with the best damn sendoff anyone could ask for. Yeah! I appreciated that support, believe me. At times it felt like we were in a British aristocratic soap opera, with the cranky lord making all kinds of unreasonable demands and harsh judgments, and we, the underlings huddled together around the kitchen table to regroup. Then whoever was on call would descend once more into the fray.
But much of the time he was the loving, funny person he had always been. This experience gave me a deeper understanding and cultivated greater compassion for everyone in relationship with difficult people. If this were not a limited period of time situation, I would not have continued to subject myself to such behavior. After he died, each day those painful moments have softened and have begun to find their very small place in the greater context of seven decades of love. They diminish and may even dissolve. (Not quite yet, perhaps, but in time.)
Practice First and Foremost
As we embarked on this hospice care adventure together, I claimed my regular daily meditation time and quiet private space throughout the experience. This was crucial for maintaining my own stability and endurance. In this way I gave everyone on our team of seven family members encouragement and permission to claim their own time and space for self-care, in whatever form that took for them — runs, yoga classes, an evening out. We made the schedule work as well as possible, taking into consideration everyone’s needs. There was no telling whether we were doing a sprint or a marathon, so we had to take care of ourselves to sustain a marathon.
Especially as women, it is so easy to give up self-care when the needs of others arise, forgetting that when we claim what we need we are always better able to meet the demands of life. So it is a kindness to all to put our meditation practice first. It is the seed that grows the support we will need to balance all that arises. This is no time for skimping!
No Need to Proselytize
Buddhism, at least as we practice it in Insight Meditation, is not full of dogma. It’s full of living wisdom (dharma) that arises from our own practice and experience. Every experience, when met in the moment, contributes to our understanding of the nature of being. And we are so grateful for the teachings, the practice and the community of practitioners. If anyone were to ask us, we would happily share our understanding, and encourage them to take the time to learn to meditate, to develop a practice and to see for themselves.
But if no one asks us, we don’t push our views. We don’t knock on doors to spread the good news. For some this might seem selfish, but if someone is ready, they find a teacher and find a community. And nowadays meditation is on offer everywhere in one form or another. It’s in the air!
A distant ex-relative of my brother’s very much wanted to visit with him ‘to see if he was going to heaven or hell’, and I assume to set him on the straight course. This was done out of deep belief and caring, but it was not anything he was open to, to put it mildly. It was not part of his belief system. It was probably very painful for that distant ex-relative to deal with, and I send her great compassion. How I would have loved to meditate with my brother, to help him handle the physical pain he was in, perhaps even to share some dharma that might have helped. But even knowing I am a Buddhist meditation teacher, he never once asked me to help him in that way. So I didn’t.
On my own I quietly sent him metta, infinite loving-kindness. This is something we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for difficult people in our lives or the world, always ending with sending it out to all beings everywhere. This is non-invasive. It helps us. And it helps relationships.
Resting in the ‘I don’t know’ mind
My brother did at times ask me questions. When I would take my turn after dinner sitting alone with him, several times he asked me ‘So what’s next?’ I wasn’t sure if he was asking, whether he was in a lucid state of understanding he was dying, or in his delusional state where he would tell friends on the phone that he was on the mend.
My answer to both questions would be the same: ‘I don’t know.’
But even though I had to say ‘I don’t know’, I was also able to tell him the truth of the present moment: ‘I don’t know what will happen next, but whatever happens we are all here together. You are surrounded by family and friends, and we are filled with love. And we will take care of you.’ That seemed to put his mind at rest. In the moment.
The not knowing was not just an answer to give my brother, but something we all had to grapple with. No one could tell us exactly how long this hospice care would go on. We had all put our normal lives on hold to whatever degree we are able. Living with not knowing, embracing uncertainty, is an important part of Buddhist practice. For after all, none of us knows the hour of our own death. None of us can read the future. Situations arise that we could never have imagined. Although there is value in planning, it is always with the understanding that we have no idea what will come.
Planning with impermanence in mind
Sitting in my brother’s world temporarily replicated in a room in our home, with the television news on 24/7, I spent a few minutes pondering what my own final days and hours might be, if I am given the choice, as he was. I know I will want peaceful and beautiful surroundings. I imagine quiet conversations, hand holding and deep gazes and hugs, and simply sitting together in silence. Perhaps this is a fantasy. But it’s also a possibility.
All of us who were caring for him dearly wanted to know what his wishes might be, but we were left guessing for much of it. He hadn’t done any planning. He didn’t like talking about death. He intended to live forever, or some reasonable facsimile, in spite of having been a smoker since the age of thirteen. He didn’t have one document and barely one forced conversation with an old friend who said, so just on the off chance you ever die what do you want to have happen with your remains? In a moment of lucidity he gave his answer, one that we would have guessed, but without his own stamp of approval, how could we know we were fulfilling his wishes?
My brother’s words were sometimes so hurtful that I wanted to put up a sign in his room reading ‘The words you use now will be emblazoned on the hearts of your loved ones forever, so choose wisely, kindly and with love.’ But I didn’t do that because it would have been unkind.
But in my own life I aspire to remember that, not just in the moments we know are the last we have together, but in every moment, because it could be the last, to use wise speech and speak from love not from fear, anguish and pain. That is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a core teaching.
There is a value in recognizing the opportunity to practice being fully present with all the arising emotions of difficult times. Though we certainly wouldn’t wish for them, when they arise, we can recognize that we now have something significant to practice with. We can grow substantially in our understanding at these times. Or we can forget to practice, forget all we learned, and plunge into mindlessness. If we do, may it only be a temporary plunge, rising into greater awareness of the gift of this moment, whatever it brings.
My brother sank into a deep sleep where he no longer needed to have his suction machine running or the television on. In this unusual quiet and calm, I did my meditation at his bedside, watching him breathe a slow ragged breath. I could see that every ten minutes or so he would grimace with pain. By taking that time, not distracting myself with a book or email, but just sitting watching, sending metta, following my own breath, I was able to see that he needed more medication. It felt like a gift of the training to simply sit and notice all that is arising in the moment, to be able to give him comfort by calling Hospice and getting a nurse to come out and up the morphine drip.
The next afternoon he died, surrounded by his oldest friends and closest family. I sat again with his cooling body as we waited for the mortuary van came, sometimes alone, sometimes with my niece, husband and other brother.
Sitting with death is an important part of Buddhist practice, but even though I had been a caregiver at the end of both my parents’ lives, I had not experienced this before. The only dead bodies I have seen have been embalmed and presented in a box at a funeral. They didn’t look like the relatives I loved. My brother looked exactly like himself, just at complete peace. My grief found a natural home by his side.
I am so grateful for all the well-wishing from friends and extended family. Everyone who knew him loved my brother, and were appreciative of the efforts our team had made on his behalf. I too was grateful that we had the opportunity to give him as loving and beautiful a goodbye as possible. Throughout, as difficult as it was, I was so grateful that he was in safe harbor, here in our home, not on his own in some distant place, struggling to hide his condition from those who love him.
Meditation is not Immunity
In some of the well-wishing messages, there seemed to be an assumption that because I meditate, this experience must be, if not a breeze, then at least far easier.
Although our practice does help us to stay present and to hold whatever experience that arises with more spaciousness and compassion, meditation does not make us immune to pain. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief.
No one gets through life unscathed by pain. It is a built in feature of earthly existence. But it is how we are in relationship to it that makes all the difference. My practice has kept me present with my emotions and made it possible to hold them tenderly. The grief is there, and I am able to see it take various forms as the days pass. Even amidst all the practical matters to deal with after his passing, I stayed present. And that is a gift. Now that those responsibilities have been taken care of, my feelings, twelve days out, shift again and again, and I notice them as they arise and fall away.
I also recognize that my grief is not all that is arising. In every moment there is also great beauty, simple pleasures, deep joy, and potential for laughter. They do not erase the grief. They co-exist in the space of my awareness.
I see the nature of my thoughts, too. I see how, like a tongue rubbing against the empty space of a lost tooth, I circle round again and again to that volatile time of caring for my brother at the end of his life — sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with regret at things said or left unsaid, done or not done. This is a natural course for the mind to take. But I gently encourage myself to also stay present in this moment, not pushing anything away, but opening again and again to all that is arising.
I hope these findings are of value to you, and remind you of the value of the practice.