182 THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING of voices or avoidance of sounds, by the tearful face of a relative or ominous, unsmiling member of the family who cannot hide his true feelings." 4 I have often found that people instinctively know they are dying, but count on others—their doctor or loved ones—to confirm it. If they don't, the dying person may think it is because family members cannot cope with the news. And then the dying person won't bring up the subject either. This lack of honesty will make him or her feel only more isolated and more anxious. I believe it is essential to tell the dying person the truth; he or she at least deserves that much. If the dying are not told the truth, how can they prepare themselves for death? How can they carry the relationships of their lives to a true conclusion? How can they take care of the many practical issues they must resolve? How can they help those who are left when they are gone to survive? From my point of view as a spiritual practitioner, I believe dying to be a great opportunity for people to come to terms with their whole lives; and I have seen many, many individuals take this opportunity, in the most inspiring way, to change themselves and come closer to their own deepest truth. So by kindly and sensitively telling people at the earliest opportunity that they are dying, we are really giving them the chance to prepare, and to find their own powers of strength, and the meaning of their lives. Let me tell you a story I was told by Sister Brigid, a Catholic nurse working in an Irish hospice. Mr. Murphy was in his sixties, and he and his wife were told by their doctor that he did not have long to live. The following day Mrs. Murphy visited her husband at the hospice, and they talked and wept all day long. Sister Brigid watched as the old couple talked and frequently broke down into tears, and when this had gone on for three days, she wondered if she should intervene. Yet the next day the Murphys seemed suddenly very relaxed and peaceful, holding hands and showing each other great tenderness. Sister Brigid stopped Mrs. Murphy in the corridor and asked her what had taken place between them to have made such a great change on their behavior. Mrs. Murphy told her that when they found out her husband was dying, they looked back over their years together, and many memories came back to them. They had been married almost forty years, and naturally they felt enormous sorrow, thinking and talking about all the things they would never be able to do
HEART ADVICE ON HELPING THE DYING 183 together again. Mr. Murphy had then made out his will, and written final messages to his grown-up children. All of this was terribly sad, because it was so hard to let go, but they carried on, as Mr. Murphy wanted to end his life well. Sister Brigid told me that for the next three weeks Mr. Murphy lived, the couple radiated peace and a simple, wonderful feeling of love. Even after her husband died, Mrs. Murphy continued to visit patients at the hospice, where she was an inspiration to everyone. This story shows to me the importance of telling people early that they are going to die, and also the great advantage of facing squarely the pain of loss. The Murphys knew that they were going to lose many things, but by facing those losses and grieving together, they found what they could not lose, the deep love between them that would remain after Mr. Murphy's death. FEARS ABOUT DYING I am sure one of the things that helped Mrs. Murphy help her husband was that she faced within herself her own fears of dying. You cannot help the dying until you have acknowledged how their fear of dying disturbs you and brings up your most uncomfortable fears. Working with the dying is like facing a polished and fierce mirror of your own reality. You see in it the stark face of your own panic andof your terror of pain. If you don't look at and accept that face of panic and fear in yourself, how will you be able to bear it in the person in front of you? When you come to try and help the dying, you will need to examine your every reaction, since your reactions will be reflected in those of the person dying and will contribute a great deal to their help or detriment. Looking at your fears honestly will also help you in your own journey to maturity. Sometimes I think there could be no more effective way of speeding up our growth as human beings than working with the dying. Caring for the dying is itself a deep contemplation and reflection on your own death. It is a way to face and work with it. When you work with the dying, you can come to a kind of resolution, a clear understanding of what is the most important focus of life. To learn really to help those who are dying is to begin to become fearless and responsible about our own dying, and to find in ourselves the beginnings of an unbounded compassion that we may never have suspected.