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Those final lessons passed on

Witnessing the death of a beloved can do many things to you

I don’t know what company my mother keeps these days, but I know she is spreading unparalleled optimism and love wherever she is.

I can no longer talk to my beloved mother and share the details of my OWN mundane life. It has been more than a month since she left and I am still clueless as to how I should handle her abrupt departure. I still can’t resist looking at my phone to see if she is calling. Beyond the physical distance of intra-national and international boundaries, my mornings began with her good-morning calls and ended with her good-night calls. Obviously, my mornings and nights are not passing ‘good’ these days!

While life is still teaching me to stand erect without my ‘backbone’, there are certain aspects of my mother’s death that have shaken the foundations of my being in this world. I find myself haunted by several spiritual questions. These questions are of a metaphysical nature, where the questions relate to my search for meaning behind the physical life. I try to articulate some of these questions and give natural answers that emerge from my newfound understanding after closely witnessing her death.

Yaksha asks: ‘What is the greatest wonder?’

Yudhisthir answers: ‘Day after day, numerous people die. Yet, the living wish to live forever. What could be a greater wonder than this!’

Death is an unknown entity and we all dread what is not known. It is an experience reserved for oneself and we just cannot learn about it by witnessing another person’s death. No generalisations could be drawn. However, research on near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences indicate that there is more to death than meets the human vision (Yes, I have read The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, and Brian Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters). Even if we do not agree with the eternity of soul theory as advocated in the Bhagavad Gita, we still do not have any evidence to dismiss it. Interestingly, everyone stands a chance to experience it for oneself!

Talking about death to a terminally ill person (or even otherwise) is considered to be rude and pessimistic. Why? I think, it is because we impute a lot of value bias to life. It is considered that life is good and death is bad as death leads to an irreversible physical separation from a loved one. So it is bad for us but, objectively speaking, we do not know if it is good or bad for the dying. And, hence, I will refrain from imputing a negative value to death. There is indeed a possibility that it is good for the dying.

Talking about death with the dying also gives an opportunity to talk about how the dying wants to die. Is there anything we can do to comfort the dying? I did talk about death with my terminally ill mother. With tears in my eyes, I informed her that she has cancer, and true to her resilient nature she looked into my eyes and told me it is okay and that it is a part of life. She sensed my fear of death and, as always, tried to calm me.

Since she was an avid reader, I started reading to her random passages from her favourite book, Meditation: Monks of the Ramakrishna Order. She would immerse herself in the passages. We would also discuss how the body should be left to relax and how we should breathe. At other times she would ask my brother to sing songs and bhajans for her. Her days were filled with mantra uchharans and the Om antarnaad. 

As I understand, witnessing the death of a beloved one is a glorious opportunity to pause and reflect on the meaning of one’s life. Apart from that, it is also when we can start thinking about how we would like to embrace our own death – by being fearful of it or by being curious as to what could possibly happen or by being neutral, peacefully accepting as to what may come. Of course, I have no idea how circumstances would build up around my death, but not thinking about it at all won't be very helpful either.

Thinking about death is not all. Thought requires translation into practical action. What could we do to make our death as peaceful as possible? As I reflect on the little more than three decades of my life, the conduct of my life passes in front of my eyes like a wave in the ocean. All my negativities (and strengths) immediately become known to me. I can, however, choose to acknowledge them or not. When I acknowledge it, life becomes simple and I become aware of my actions. It is this moment of honest acknowledgment, I believe, that holds the key to a peaceful death. Honest acknowledgment is likely to seep into our natural conduct, through empathy and compassion.

For the last two days of her life, my mother was in the intensive care unit of a hospital. When I asked her if she was in pain, she said ‘no’. This was surprising because she had immense pain earlier, and she was put on morphine for one and a half months. Remarkably, till her last moments she was lucid, communicative and expressive. I was captivated by the extraordinary glow on her face that appeared then. When she left, her face was serene and had a hint of smile. I now realise that perhaps this was a marker of the quality of the life she had led. Her compassionate nature and gentle conduct were clearly reflected in the way she left the world. 

Like any other mother-daughter duo, we had had our own share of fights. And the fight was me complaining and she, smiling. I used to tell her invariably that she was way too tolerant of people’s negativity and that she should retaliate. In response, she would just say that life is too short to be rigid. Learning can happen only when you are flexible in your thoughts. Negativity is a matter of rigidness of thought and so it should not be taken seriously. I never understood her point.

When I was preparing my mother for her last bath after death, I had difficulty moving her hand. Rigor mortis was setting in. With tears in my eyes, I pleaded: ‘Help me clean you up, Ma’. And she complied! Her hand was flexible again and I could move her.

The hardest learning of my life then dawned upon me: rigidity is death and flexibility is life!

anveshna.sriv@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 1:04:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/those-final-lessons-passed-on/article23783626.ece

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