Sunday, March 26, 2017

Empty Chair

I have lately read two books. One was Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life, by Ira Byock, M.D. He says that reconciliation tasks include saying to someone, “Please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you, I love you, goodbye.” He says that if we aren’t able to be with someone in person to say these things, we can sit (or lie) opposite an empty chair and pretend the person is seated there and that we are addressing him or her directly. The idea is to complete relationships as best we can and free our minds of worries or resentments.

He says that a common fear near end of life is of being in pain, but he says that pain (and shortness of breath, which can be very frightening) can always be alleviated.

Something I learned that I was not aware of at all was that starvation and infection are relatively peaceful ways to die. When someone is dying, eating can become a burden. It can be a relief not to have to eat and not to have to digest and eliminate what is eaten, but for his or her loved ones, this can appear cruel: “She’s not going to die of starvation, is she?!” To this, Dr. Byock might mentally reply, “What would you prefer she die of?” That is, the person is going to die of something, and, as he mentions a handful of times, there are ways to die that are much less pleasant than starvation or infection, so it is perfectly reasonable for a dying person to choose to stop eating or to decide not to take antibiotics to treat an infection.

The other book I have just finished is Being with Dying: Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion in the Presence of Death, by Joan Halifax, which I also really liked.

She writes about “giving no fear”—behaving in such a way that others don’t have to be afraid of us, and facing our own difficulties so that we ourselves are less afraid and have less fear with which to infect others. She writes about two Zen images related to giving no fear: the iron man, who demonstrates resoluteness, resilience and durability, and the wooden puppet, who compassionately responds to the needs around her automatically and instinctively. Halifax’s shorthand for the two together is “strong back, soft front,” and she writes that both the iron man and the wooden puppet can practice what she calls “radical optimism,” because they are free of expectations about what the outcome should be.

At the end of each chapter, she offers a meditation. One I particularly liked is called “Contemplating Our Priorities.” She asks the reader to imagine herself as an old person on her deathbed and asks several questions, including, “What goals would you like to have achieved by this stage of your life?” and “What do you want your life to be like when you are an old person?” Next she asks the reader to imagine herself as ten years older and on her deathbed, then five years older and dying. What if the reader will die in one year? “What can you do at this moment to support your peaceful death?” What if death is a month away, next week, tonight? 


I found this contemplation so powerful that I rushed into my closet, unearthed my old stereo receiver (a gift from my father 35 years ago) and my stereo speakers, and placed an ad on Craigslist to give them away free. In a couple of hours, they were gone. I’ve meant to do this for about two years. With death looming, there was no more time to waste! Seriously, I do plan to return to this contemplation and go through it in detail, to see what other changes I might need to make right now.
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