I GREW UP in the South, and one of the people I was closest to as a girl was my grandmother Bessie. I loved spending summers with her in Savannah, where she worked as a sculptor and artist, carving tombstones for local people. Bessie was a remarkable village woman; she often served her community as someone comfortable around illness and death, someone who would sit with dying friends.
And yet when she herself became ill, her own family could not offer her the same compassionate presence. My parents were good people, but like others of their generation, they had no preparation for being with her as she experienced her final days. When my grandmother suffered first from cancer and then had a stroke, she was put into a nursing home and left largely alone. And her death was long and hard.
This was in the early sixties, when the medical establishment treated dying, like giving birth, as an illness. Death was usually “handled” in a clinical setting outside the home. I visited Bessie in a plain, cavernous room in the nursing home, a room filled with beds of people who had all been effectively abandoned by their kin—and I can never forget hearing her beg my father to let her die, to help her die. She needed us to be present for her, and we withdrew in the face of her suffering.
When my grandmother finally died, I felt deep ambivalence, sorrow, and relief. I looked into her coffin in the funeral home, and saw that the terrible frustration that had marked her features was now gone. She seemed at last at peace. As I stood looking at her gentle face, I realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. At that moment, I made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.
Although I had been raised Protestant, I turned to Buddhism not long after my grandmother’s death. Its teachings put my youthful suffering into perspective, and the message of the Buddha was clear and direct: Freedom from suffering lies within suffering itself, and it is up to each individual to find his or her own way. But Buddhism also suggests a path through our alienation and toward freedom. The Buddha taught that we should practice helping others while cultivating deep concentration, compassion, and wisdom. He further taught that enlightenment is not a mystical, transcendent experience but an ongoing process, calling for intimacy and transparency; and that suffering diminishes when confusion and fear change into openness and strength.
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