What would you do if you
were suddenly given three months to live ?
It's probably the last thing you actually want to think
about, yet in reality, the only certainty in life is death, other
than birth and that we can assume has already happened. What is not
certain is the time of death. We live in a culture that is in constant
denial of this fact and one that provides very little preparation
for this profound transition.
Being one who has probably had her fair share of losses in life:
death of a parent, separation from a partner, a miscarriage, and
the loss of income due to an extended illness; I thought I knew
a thing or two about grieving, letting go, moving on. I'd experienced
death celebrations in other cultures and felt I had a fairly healthy
attitude to death and dying.
a year ago, however, I'd reached a plateau in my healing process
and a basic enthusiasm for life was eluding me. I had a subtle,
nagging feeling that maybe I was actually scared of getting totally
well and embracing life with my former energy. Who will I be? What
will I do? How will I manifest support for myself? What is my purpose
here? I understood somewhere that until I was ready to confront
my own mortality, my life was going to remain somehow on hold -
my potential unfulfilled. It was actually this fear that motivated
me to enrol. A life lived in fear is a life half lived, and all
it was with a sense of inevitability and not a little trembling,
that I found myself booked to do a two-day workshop called Facing
Death - Embracing Life with Judy Arpana, a friend, teacher, and
kind of personal guardian angel of mine whom I've been privileged
to know since I moved to Byron Bay nearly 10 years ago. Her wisdom
and compassion is dispensed with straight talking, sensitivity and
humour and I knew I couldn't be in more capable and caring hands.
Arpana's work with the terminally ill and her study of the dying
process with Tibetan lamas and other teachers over the last 20 years
has been inspirational and healing for many people.
I asked her how she came to be involved in this work. She replied,
"Working on the premise that we teach what we need to learn, I obviously
need to be doing this work and I'm really happy if other people
benefit from it. There has been a lot of grief in my life. When
my father died and I wasn't there and I didn't hear about it until
later, it was probably the worst possible scenario for a healthy
grieving. This drew me to Tibetan Buddhism and I have been blessed
with meeting many wonderful teachers in my life. If I can be a vehicle
for sharing what I have learned from them, them my life right now
seems to have a sense of purpose."
Here on the North Coast of New South Wales, Judy Arpana was responsible
for establishing a branch of the AIDS Council of NSW in Lismore.
She has been part of a network of support for the sick and dying
that now includes an alternative Funeral Service, where bereaved
friends and families are offered practical information and support
in creating meaningful ceremonies, and a Buddhist Hospice Service
in Mullumbimby, staffed by volunteers who care for those who wish
to die at home.
light to the subject of death
Arpana is fond of saying that her mission is to 'normalise' death.
In demystifying death, we come to accept it as a part of the natural
cycle of life and we can begin to live less fearfully and save ourselves
"During the workshop,we examined the whole nature of loss and
grief, not only in relation to physical death, but with all the
little deaths that can occur in the course of a lifetime. It could
be the loss of a friendship, a pet, a relationship, a lifestyle,
job or house...children leaving home, menopause, retirement, the
loss of self-image or a physical function."
often don't recognise grief," Arpana says "because it isn't any
one feeling or identifiable emotion. We each have our unique way
of dealing with grief, loss and change. Hearing others' stories
in the group, you start to recognise that some of the things you
might have been feeling are actually a manifestation of grief. To
realise that denial is, in fact, a valid coping mechanism is a great
Arpana says that it's been her experience that it takes at least
two years to adjust to the loss of a family member or close personal
friend. "We often expect ourselves to be strong and to be over it
in two or three months. Hearing that this is a totally unreal expectation
to put on yourself, allows compassion for your own pace and way
Stephen Levine in his book 'Healing Into Life and Death ' offers
this insight: 'That feeling of not grieving correctly, of being
separate from grief, is grief itself. It is that feeling of separation
from ourselves and others to which the word 'grief' can most accurately
be applied...Opening to the little grief, the little losses, the
little deaths, we make room for the greater grief, the greater losses,
the greater death.''
is important to understand and honour the grieving process as an
essential part of healing. Change is our only constant. If we can
restructure our concept of change as loss and recognise the gains
it offers, we can learn not to resist it. Then major life transitions
become much less painful. Embracing change with grace and ease,
we can move more positively and freely towards the next stage in
"I think it was Osho who said that there is only one real fear:
the fear of death. If we closely examine all our fears, they actually
come back to not existing. This state is also attainable through
meditation. By meditating we are actually practising for our own
death. In the workshop, meditations and guided visualisations assist
participants in accepting and preparing for a conscious death."
a preparation for death?
Arpana cites the Buddhist idea that life is just a preparation for
death. "They say the most important moment of your life is the
moment of your death, and that we will handle that transition in
exactly the same way that we have dealt with all other changes in
our lives. If we respond at that moment with fear, or anger or grasping
(what the Buddhists call attachment), then we will take a rebirth
unconsciously. We will incarnate very quickly and without a lot
of direction. With a calm and clear mind, however, free of fear,
ready to leave and with nothing incomplete, we are able to consciously
choose the mode and place of rebirth."
In the workshop there are opportunities to complete unfinished
business, prepare a will, even write your own obituary, design your
funeral and art-direct your wake. For me, this was a very profound
experience, as I really did complete some issues that had been lingering
and draining energy. In creating a celebration for my passing, I
had a huge amount of fun and really came to appreciate myself as
I am now. I realised that I don't need to become anybody else to
be worthy of being celebrated.
What Arpana teaches is the kind of information to which everyone
should have access. We need more light cast on the subject of death
and dying. It needs to be brought out of the dark, unspoken territory
where it currently resides in our society. I beleive it should be
taught in schools!
participant reported, "As I begin to prepare for my death consciously,
I feel I am preparing for a renewed sense of appreciation for all
that is precious to me in my life."
Arpana adds: "In facing the inevitability of our death, the
ordinary and simple events in our lives take on a deeper significance.
We develop a greater appreciation for those around us and the planet
we share. Life's priorities change. We learn not to postpone life
and awaken to a deeper compassion and a richer, more meaningful
For me, writing this article has been a confronting journey. Delving
into this territory again has brought up a heap of reminders about
uncomfortable areas that I've yet to clean up in my life: cupboards
not sorted, affairs still to put in order, responsibilities postponed,
letters unwritten to loved ones, creative projects yet to initiate,
words left unsaid, gratitude unexpressed.
Although, giving voice to this fundamental material represents
one piece of unfinished business that's now complete. So if I'm
dead by the time this article appears, there'll be one less pile
of papers for my loved ones to deal with! It's been a HUGE life
so far and if this is it, then I'm full of gratitude. (Detailed
instructions for a long, loud and outrageous celebration are scribbled
in one of my notepads, guys. Remember, she loved to party!)