I love hearing stories of caregiving. Maybe because I grew up with a family of caregivers and it feels like home to me.
Maybe it’s because I am so interested in how we interact with each other, especially at times that give us great opportunity for growth. And there is no other time like dying and caring for the aging and dying that can give us the gift of growth.
David Brazier, Buddhist teacher, says, “Life comes to life at its limit.” Everything becomes intensified — our love, our strength, our anger, our fear. I sometimes think that we need to have the edge of living with dying to bring out the best in us.
I had a recent scare with the idea of losing someone very close to me and life became intense. Thinking of last-minute travel plans, trying to get ahold of people who could tell me what was going on, fearing that I might not make it in time. . .
I thought the limits of our relationship were drawing in on us quickly and it seemed to bring the very best in me out — the loving, care, concern, and compassion that I have placed on a shelf, at the back of a dark closet.
I wish all of the stories I hear could turn out as good as this one did for me. The person recovered, I did not have to travel to be close, though I wanted to, and recuperation is slow but steady.
All and all, a much better picture than the one that I painted in my mind’s eye as all of the chaotic thoughts of loss swirled around and around.
The most painful stories for me are the ones where the dying person is stripped of dignity while they die. And I really don’t mean the actual dying but rather the living their dying. . . knowing that it is coming and having everyone else think they know how it needs to be done. When the people around the dying think they now what it means to die well.
Our need to control can be insidious at times, so subtle that we don’t have any idea of what we are doing. We tell someone who is dying that they have to take their medicine or they have to stop smoking.
We tell them that they can’t eat something that they have always loved. We tell the person who has the bottle of scotch close to the bedside that there will be no more of that. And who are we?
Who are we to think that’s how someone needs to be loved at the end of this life? Who are we to try to change the fundamental aspects of this person?
We say things like, “Mother, you shouldn’t use that kind of language” when they swear at the visiting nurse. We correct them when they tell us things like, “Your uncle, he’s sitting over in that chair waiting for me” and we see no one in that chair.
Maybe we do and say these things out of love or out of misguided actions. I’m not sure there is just one reason or if reason is part of this primordial need to fix things or have everyone socialized into our consensual reality.
Even when someone is living with dementia or slowly dying, we have a need to pull in the reins and have people conform to our notions.
Aging and dying can be times where we practice giving unconditional love. We do this when a baby is born. We don’t yell at them for soiling their diaper or throwing carrots during a meal. We laugh when they do things that don’t make sense. And yet, we don’t do this for those aging and dying.
Can you imagine having something that gives you comfort when you are anxious — a cigarette, a drink, an emotion, a great curse word — and someone wants to take that from you?
Can you imagine how unloving that might feel, how being corrected and chastised could be mortifying? You are trying to cope with what’s going on, trying to make your way through the situation and you are being stripped of it. How lonely it might feel!
How judged and unloved I might feel if I am this person.
I think aging and dying are times in life that the human being should be celebrated, like we celebrate the miracle of birth. What would it be like to celebrate the complexity that is the person who we care for? What if that meant temporarily putting on hold our need to control or to do what is right and proper?
One way a caregiver can allow themselves to love more freely is to meditate on their own death.
What might it be like?
What would I want and need?
What are things/ideas/values that I would be unwilling to compromise?
What are things that might give me some comfort?
Can you settle in and let your breath relax?
Become more mindful of the flow of air that arises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.
As you do, can you imagine what it will be like to be frail, confused, fragile, or anxious?
What kind of powerlessness might you feel as someone you once took care of has to take over caring for you? Imagine what it might be like to be naked in front of your adult child as they bathe you or change your clothes. . .
Picture yourself being asked to take several pills when even drinking water is laborious. Can you have mercy on yourself in that situation – wanting to live until your last breath? Can you have compassion for what your caregiver might be going through?
We spend years sitting on a cushion, chanting, touching malas, and doing loving kindness as a practice for these moments, these last breaths.
Envision the ultimate loving kindness practice of holding space in your heart, to love an aging or dying person as if they were the baby Buddha in your hands.
Gentle, soft hands that will cradle the baby Buddha and keep him or her safe from harm.
Can you relax into just being present and loving?
And sharing the greatest gift of all, your presence?
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