Unless we love no one, all of us will one day or another have to deal with the death of a loved one, such as a parent, a child or someone very close who has meant a lot to us. For most people, this is one of the hardest things we will ever deal with in life. We feel helpless, we feel as if we are losing something, and we feel as if our life will never be the same again. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help, nothing is being lost and, even though our life will never be the same again, this need not be a bad thing. The following is offered in the hopes of helping facilitate the passing of your loved ones and in helping all of us constructively transform the mourning process. I have tried to put everything I know in one place in the hopes it might prove useful when the time comes.
When the death of a loved one comes, we often feel helpless as if there is nothing we can do. From one perspective, this is completely true. We cannot stop death from coming, no matter how much we might wish we could. This feeling of helplessness makes it very difficult to deal with the suffering of losing a loved one, and we can quickly become depressed, discouraged or resentful. But there are things we can do to help.
As our loved one approaches death, there are five main things we can do to help. First, we should help them re-interpret the different physical and mental pains associated with death. Pain only becomes “suffering” when we don’t know how to use it. The suffering of death arises from the dying person’s unwillingness or inability to let go of their current body and mind. The habitual practice in society is to tell the person to “hang on, fight for your life and refuse to accept death.” When seriously ill but with a chance of recovery, this is good advice. When terminally ill with no chance of recovery, this is disastrous advice. When dealing with somebody who is terminally ill, we should help them let go. Regardless of the person’s spiritual inclinations (Buddhist, non-Buddhist or atheist), help them reinterpret the pain of death as “God encouraging you to let go of this body so that you may now go to heaven. The more it hurts, the more you are being encouraged to let go identifying with this body.” Adapt the language as appropriate depending upon the person’s spiritual beliefs. Similarly, help them mentally let go of all that they will leave behind. This may be as simple as telling them, “don’t worry, I’ll deal with everything.” Ideally, if your karmic relationship with the dying person allows for this, help them plan how they want to give everything away upon their passing. Much of the mental anguish of death is grasping on to the things they will need to leave behind. If beforehand they mentally give it all away, it will be much easier to let go.
Second, help them die without regrets. Obviously the best way to avoid dying full of regret is to use one’s precious human life to the fullest. When one hasn’t done so, however, it is quite natural to develop all sorts of regrets for the mistakes made throughout life. This regret can easily transform into guilt (a form of self-hatred, which is a delusion), which may in turn activate negative karma at the time of death leading to a lower rebirth. To protect against this, we help the person die without regrets. We should help them understand it is never too late to learn life’s lessons. If we admit our mistakes and learn from them, we will die with valuable lessons learned on our mind which we can carry with us into our next life. It is likewise never too late to make amends. We can help the dying person reach out to those they have wronged in an effort to make amends, even if it is only helping them draft a letter of apology to be passed along after death. Help the dying person realize they did the best they could so that they can also forgive themselves. But don’t allow inappropriate attention to focus just on the mistakes, also help the dying person recall all of the good things they have done, accomplishments they have had, virtues they have engaged in. Rejoicing in our own virtue is a wisdom mind which lays the foundation for a future life of continued goodness.
Third, heal our own relationships with those that the dying person also loves, especially the close members of their family. When the relationships within a family are strained, everyone in that family pays a price. This is especially true for the dying person. One of the best ways we can repay the kindness of the dying person is to heal our own relationships with those that the dying person also loves. The dying person loves both us and the other person, and when we are estranged from the other person, it quite literally rips the dying person’s heart in two. Healing our relationship with the other person heals this rift in the heart of the dying. Fortunately, the truth of death usually cuts through our petty differences with others and both sides agree it is time to bury the hatchet. But even if the other person is unwilling to do so, from our own side we can let go of our own animosity and we can choose to not add any more fuel to the fire, even when provoked. One common source of tension amongst the loved ones being left behind is anger about how others within the family or close circle of friends are responding to the impending death of the common loved one. This anger can arise from disagreements over when it is time to accept the inevitable and shift the focus from avoiding death to preparing for its coming, scheming with regards to how the assets of the deceased will be divided, frustration with how the other person is responding to the impending death in a different way than we are or even petty jealousy over who was loved more by the dying. Generally speaking, we should give people the space to deal with death in their own way and we should not seek to impose our way of dealing with death onto others. Our focus should be having our own reactions be constructive, regardless of what others are doing or how they are responding. We should recall from Eight Steps to Happiness where Geshe-la says the mind of cherishing others acts as a magic crystal with the power to heal any community.
Fourth, we should help the dying person have a virtuous mind at the time of death. Externally, we should help them be comfortable and feel as if they are enveloped in love. To help them feel comfortable, we should not develop extreme attitudes towards the use of pain killers. One extreme is avoiding pain killers altogether under the false notion that pain is purification. Pain is only purification if we accept it. If the pain is so great that we are unable to respond to it constructively or to focus on our other virtues, then we have gone too far. The other extreme is to overly rely upon them depriving the person a chance to remain conscious enough to generate virtue. If the person is unnecessarily knocked unconscious, they will die without pain but they also will not have a chance to generate virtue. Each person’s tolerance for pain varies, and the closer one comes to death the attitude towards pain killers may shift. As a general rule of thumb, respect the wishes of the dying in this regard, don’t impose your own views on them unless absolutely necessary. Keep the temperature of the dying person comfortable, not too hot nor too cold, again respecting their wishes. To help them feel enveloped in love, simply love them. Let them know you are there for them. Help those around you project the same feeling when they are with the dying. Mentally imagine that the dying person is surrounded by all living beings, in particular those they are close to, sending love and prayers towards them. Strongly believe that the dying is surrounded by all of the Buddhas who have taken the dying into their loving care, protecting them from the ripening of negative karma and bestowing upon them a rain of blessings and realizations. Most importantly, if possible, help the dying person strongly believe that whoever is their object of faith is with them and will take them by the hand through the death process and beyond. Geshe-la once told a dying person, “know that I am with you always.” Faith is a naturally virtuous mind. In all religions, people are encouraged to remember their object of faith (Jesus, God, Buddha, Krishna, whomever) at the time of death. Faith functions to open the blinds of our mind to receive into it the sunlight of blessings. Blessings function to activate virtuous, even pure, karma leading to a fortunate rebirth. We can surround the dying person with holy images or objects that remind them of their objects of faith, such as Buddha statues, crosses, sacred texts, etc. Geshe-la explains that holy images are by nature non-contaminated, and merely beholding them is a naturally virtuous act which functions to plant non-contaminated karma onto our minds.
Fifth, regularly do powa for the dying as it becomes increasingly clear that death is approaching. At the end of every festival, Geshe-la would always spend the last few minutes of his teaching encouraging us to love our families and letting us know that he prays for them. In my view, his greatest gift to our loved ones is his teachings on the practice of powa. Powa is a special method for transferring the consciousness of somebody to the pure land at the time of death. The most important thing to know about death is the quality of mind we have at the time of death determines the quality of our next rebirth. If we die with a negative, deluded mind, it will activate negative karma throwing us into a lower rebirth. If we die with a positive, virtuous mind, it will activate positive karma lifting us into an upper rebirth. If we die with a faithful, pure mind, it will activate pure karma taking us out of samsara to the pure land. The primary function of powa is to help the dying generate faithful, pure minds during the death process and in the bardo (or intermediate state). There are two main practices of powa, powa for the dying and powa for the deceased. As it becomes increasingly clear that death is approaching, we should increase the frequency with which we engage in the practice of powa for the dying. Sometimes the doubt may arise, “but what if my loved one is not Buddhist, surely they might object to me doing a ritual practice transferring them to a Buddhist pure land.” We need not worry. Even though in this world people of different religions may be in conflict, we can be assured qualified holy beings are not in conflict with each other (if they were, how could we say they were qualified holy beings?). If the dying person’s karma is Christian, for example, even though within our own mind we might be imagining holy beings in the aspect of Guru Buddha Avalokiteshvara and that their consciousness is being transferred to Akanishta, Tushita or Keajra, we can confidently know that the holy beings will appear to the dying in the aspect of Jesus, Mary and the holy Saints and they will experience their consciousness being transferred to heaven to be reunited with God. What we see is a question of our karmic point of view, but the underlying spiritual process of transference is the same. More detail on powa practices can be found below and in the books Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, and Great Treasury of Merit.
After death, what can we do to help? Sometimes, oftentimes in fact, we will have very little warning that death is coming and so we will have little opportunity to do much of the above. But we can almost always do much of the below.
First, what should we do about the body of the deceased? It is important to understand there is a difference between clinical death and the death process being complete. Clinical death usually occurs when the heart permanently stops beating. The death process is complete when the karmic connection between the body and the mind permanently ceases. This can happen quite quickly, or it can take up to 72 hours after clinical death. During this time, to the maximum extent possible, the body should be left undisturbed. If the body is to be touched, do so gently, minimizing contact with the lower parts of the body and maximizing contact with the upper parts of the body, in particular the crown of the deceased’s head. The reason for this is the mind can remain in the body for some time after clinical death, and contact with the body can cause the person’s mind to move in the direction of the point of contact. If our mind leaves our body through the lower doors, we will more likely take a lower rebirth; and if our mind leaves our body through the upper doors, we will more likely take an upper rebirth. If our mind leaves through the crown of our head, we will more likely take rebirth in a pure land heaven. Geshe-la said he has specially blessed the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune so that if we touch it to the crown of the deceased, imagining that the person’s consciousness ascends through their central channel from their heart to their crown, entering the book and then being transported to the pure land, the deceased will definitely take rebirth in a pure land. I think every Dharma center should have a special copy of Joyful Path, which they generally keep on the main shrine at the center, and that is used in this way again and again whenever loved ones of the Sangha members pass away. In this way, the book becomes increasingly blessed with the power to do powa and becomes a true holy relic in this world passed down from generation to generation. Similarly, individual families can do the same thing, having a family copy used especially for this purpose. In modern times, sometimes it is not always possible to leave the body untouched for three days. We simply do our best knowing the power of Buddha’s blessings are far stronger than the minimal contact with the body after death. Christians have similar beliefs, and Christian hospitals can often be more flexible about leaving the body undisturbed. We should try negotiate this in advance with the medical facility, paying for extra nights in the hospital room if necessary and possible. Dying at home or in special hospitals for the dying can also be arranged.
Second, we should actively do the internal work necessary to overcome any and all delusions we might have towards the deceased, and instead fill our mind with gratitude and selfless love. Ideally, we should start this process before the person dies, but if that is not possible it is never too late. It does not matter if the deceased is able to reciprocate our overtures, what matters is internally when we think of the other person our mind is free from delusion and is instead pervaded by virtuous thoughts. We should take an honest look at what delusions we may have in our mind towards the deceased, such as resentments for past wrongs, jealousy, or strong attachment to them. We should view their death as our opportunity to finally lay to rest these deluded states of mind towards them. Did they make mistakes? Of course they did, but who among us is perfect? Did they harm us in some way? Probably, but whether we receive harm or whether we receive benefit depends a great deal (indeed entirely) upon how we relate to whatever they did or did not do. Even if we related to it badly in the past, it is never too late to relate to it constructively now. We should practice appropriate attention recalling all of their acts of kindness towards us, generating deep feelings of gratitude for the contribution they have made to our life. And most importantly, we should let go of our strong attachment towards them. When my mother died, my teacher Gen Lekma told me, “you are not losing your mother, she is simply going someplace else. There is nothing about her death that prevents you from continuing to love her, pray for her and have a relationship with her. If you keep your relationship with her alive in your mind, for you she never dies.” This does not mean we don’t let go and accept that death occurs, rather it means we understand that death is not the end of our relationship with our loved ones, it simply marks the beginning of the next chapter. For a Buddha, they see their relationship with others in an arc across countless lifetimes, one eventually resulting in their leading of all beings to enlightenment. We can do the same, starting with our loved ones who pass away. Venerable Tharchin said, “those who serve as our main objects of bodhichitta while we are on the path are the first ones we liberate after we complete it.” We should always keep our loved ones, even those who have passed away, as our main objects of bodhichitta, striving sincerely to attain enlightenment so that we may one day be certain to rescue them all from samsara.
Third, we can put our share of the deceased’s assets to good use. We can give the money to charities or causes dear to the heart of the deceased, whether that be paying for college for the grandkids, aiding the homeless, a local church, the Red Cross, or a shelter for abused women and children. We can likewise donate the money to the International Temples Fund, the building of a retreat center in our country, or even our local Dharma center. At a minimum, we should save some of the money to buy offerings for the main powa ceremony we do after their death. We should try purchase offerings of things that the dying person loved most. For my mother, this wound up being brownies, lots of flowers and a copy of Vogue magazine! The point is this, even if the person was not very giving in their lifetime, we can be giving for them, using whatever they have accumulated in this world for good purposes (not our own selfish ones). This does not mean we cannot use some of these resources for our own benefit. We can honestly ask ourselves, “what would the deceased want for me,” and allocate the resources accordingly. If the person dies without assets, we can practice such giving ourselves on their behalf.
Finally, we should try do powa for the 49 days that the deceased could be in the bardo. Sometimes people develop the doubt, “why should we do powa more than once, isn’t once enough?” Once may be enough, but then again it may not be. The point is it is better to err on the side of doing too much powa than not enough. The more causes and conditions we create for the person to take rebirth in a pure land, the better. This may lead to a contradiction in our mind. We may doubt, “aren’t I supposed to strongly believe at the end of powa practice that the person has indeed taken rebirth in the pure land, and so by doing it again just in case am I not undermining that strong belief?” The answer to this doubt is subtle, but profound. We do not strongly believe that the deceased has taken rebirth in the pure land because this is objectively true (since nothing is objectively true), rather we generate this strong belief because doing so completes the karmic action of powa which will ripen in the future in the form of this person appearing to have taken rebirth in the pure land (appearing in this way both to ourself and to their own mind). The same logic is true for the practices of taking and giving, generating divine pride in our practice of Tantra, and so forth. At a minimum, we should try organize one main powa ceremony at our local center with our Sangha friends, or at least one main one we do on our own at home. Afterwards, we can (if we wish or need to) set aside our main daily practice and do the powa sadhana every day for the 49 days that the person could be in the bardo. Indirectly, we will still be keeping all of our commitments, so we need not worry. Alternatively, we can do 100 Avalokitehsvara mantras every day, with each recitation requesting that the deceased be taken to the pure land. At some point during the 49 days, we may receive clear indications that the powa has been complete. These signs may take the form of special dreams or perhaps our mind will suddenly clear and we will just know it has been done. After that time, we can continue for good measure or cease with the practice depending upon what feels most appropriate. Regardless of whether we receive such signs or not, we should continually train in the strong belief that the person has indeed taken rebirth in the pure land for the reasons explained above.
The power of our powa practices depends upon (1) the degree of faith we have in the holy beings, in particular their power to actually do the transference, (2) the strength and soundness of our karmic connections both between ourselves and the dying/deceased and with the holy beings, (3) the purity of our compassion for the dying/deceased, wishing that they be protected from the sufferings of death and uncontrolled rebirth, and (4) the karma of the dying/deceased, both in terms of their richness in merit and how purified their mind is of negative karma. During the entire death process, both leading up to it and after death occurs, we should continuously strive to improve these four things. We can increase our faith through the explanations found in the Lamrim, reading authentic commentaries on powa practice and speaking with our Sangha friends about their experiences with this practice. We can improve our karmic connections by spending time being with or thinking about our loved one and also the holy beings. In effect, our karmic connections with our loved one and our karmic connections with the holy beings serves as a karmic bridge through which the blessings of the holy beings can reach the mind of our loved ones. We can improve the purity of our compassion by working through whatever delusions we may have towards our loved one and by contemplating the nature of our samsaric situation. We can improve the karma of our loved ones by practicing giving and purification on their behalf or through encouraging them to do the same. Everything described above, directly or indirectly, helps improve these four causes and conditions for effective powa practice.
In conclusion, when our loved ones pass away it is true our life may never be the same again. Dealing with the death of somebody close to us will always be one of the hardest things we ever do in life. But we need not feel helpless, there are many things we can do to help. Our doing these things not only helps the deceased, but it is also the very means by which we ourselves mourn their passing. Their death is not the end of our relationship with them, but is rather the beginning of the next chapter. We can continue to love them, pray for them and keep our relationship alive with them. Perhaps their death will fundamentally change things in our life, but this need not be a bad thing. If we relate to their death in constructive ways, we can transform the experience from a travesty into fuel for our spiritual growth. One door closes, but others open. Some things are lost, but new things are gained. Above all, Geshe-la said, “our main job is to pray.”
I pray that all sufferings of death be pacified, both for the deceased as well as those that are left behind. I pray that at the time of their death all of your loved ones are effortlessly transferred to the pure land. And I pray that their death becomes a powerful cause of enlightenment for all those touched by it. May all those who might benefit from this document find it when they need it, may all sorrow come to an end, may we never feel alone, and may we all one day be reunited in the pure land.