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Death and the Dying Process: a Personal Reflection From a Westerner Living in the East

We will all experience this sooner or later. Losing someone who is dear to us. Someone who is so precious to us that contemplating their absence in our lives is almost unbearable, in fact, unimaginable. This is how my dad was to me. Together with my mum, he formed a rock in my life for me to come back to again and again. A warmth and comfort so safe and so seemingly solid that I never fully grasped would ever go away. 

I lost my dad earlier this year to cancer. He was 67 years old and it took less than a year since we got the diagnosis of his disease until he died. In one sense, everything went very fast, and at the same time, these 8 months or so gave us a bit of time to prepare for what was to come. 

I had lost my grandparents that I loved dearly, but whom died from old age, which is a different kind of loss. Or losing a beloved dog, a family member, which is very difficult but you find your way. 

– But a parent? How do you relate with loosing someone who forms the foundation of your entire being? This is a very different thing to be faced with altogether. It shakes up your perspective on everything. 

A flower in the Himalayas

My Anchor of Support

Throughout the whole process; from learning about my dad’s disease, from going through the first thoughts that “I might lose him”, to seeing how the cancer took over his body little by little, to being there with him in the final days of him dying; I cannot imagine how I would have related with all of this if it was not from the support of my Buddhist practice in everyday life, in reminding myself that one day we will all die and that everything we experience is just like a fleeting moment, like a water bubble. 

Acceptance in Himalayan Buddhist Cultures

I have often heard teachers mention that the most powerful teaching of all is that of death and impermanence. That nothing will shake us up from the deep sleep of our confusion and habitual tendencies as this. I think it’s true. I feel now that it’s true. 

I have spent more than a decade in the ‘east’, particularly in the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Tibet. The encounter with these cultures have shaped my core being. Seeing how the people relate with death and impermanence with such acceptance and with such natural grace has touched me deeply. This does not mean that they do not grieve, or mourn the loss of a loved-one, but more so, it refers to how they relate with it. 

A man praying at the Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu

Being Alienated to Reality as It Is

I have often felt saddened about how we relate with death and dying in the west. We are not really given any tools of how to relate with this in our culture as a whole growing up. When death and impermanence then occur in our lives, we are completely left out in the dark about what to do. Instead, all we are left with is the habitual tendency to cover up this tremendous pain and suffering.        

Mind-training

In the Buddhist tradition of the east, we are encouraged to spend some time every day checking in with our mind. “How is the state of my mind right now; positive, negative or neutral?”. Most of the time we are so caught up in our own thoughts and emotions that we have no clue. 

As the Buddha said, “the cause of happiness and suffering – depends on your mind”. – What a relief! At least this is a starting point. This is something to work with.  There is no one out there to point the finger at.  

Cracking the Egg Open 

My teacher Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche once said:

 “All compounded phenomena are impermanent. So is our protected ‘cocoon’. We should not try to avoid difficult situations, we will anyway crack open like eggs! This is what we are trying to do all of the time, ignoring reality as it is”. 

When loosing someone precious to us, there is nowhere of hiding. At least for some time until our habits slowly take over again. It is like we are cracked open, naked, raw. 

What do we do with this open space, a space without a reference point? Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the greatest teachers of our time, refers to this space as ‘good news’. He mentions that becoming acquainted with this ‘heart of sadness’ is a tremendously positive thing, and that in fact, this is more so close to reality than our usual habitual tendencies of covering up our heart.  

Prayer flags & mountains
Prayer flags in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal

A Place of Comfort 

One such ‘space’ of familiarising ourselves with ‘reality as it is’ is in the place of a hospice. My dad was admitted to a hospice in my hometown in Denmark 15 days before he died. I had cut short a trip to Canada, visiting my partner Alex’s family, before rushing back home to be with my dad during his final days. 

I was amazed at the kindness, warmth and open-heartedness I was met with in the nurses working at the hospice. I felt I could go to them with any question about death and dying and how I could be there for my dad, and also for my mum and my remaining family, during this challenging time. They were always available for a chat. 

One of the nurses I spoke with during the first days of getting back said to me, “You know, I feel fully at peace with the fact that I will die one day. Being so intimately connected with dying people in my work every day has taught me this”. I was amazed. Here I was, heart cracked open in the face of losing my beloved dad, and here was someone who felt fully comfortable with the whole situation. It made me feel safe and comforted. She had already ‘gone there’ in her mind, from an experiential – rather than an intellectual place. It was such a relief to have these ‘warriors of kindness’ all around us, comforting us and checking in with us to see if we needed anything, physical as well as emotional support. 

‘Everest Desert Landscape’ in Tibet, print available on our Store

What Now? 

One thing that this experience has taught me, and which will feel forever changed in my being, is the certainty that we will all die. That we cannot take anything for granted in this life; that our loved ones will always be there, that our seemingly solid body will always be there. It will all go. Remembering and feeling this on a regular basis helps me to remember the preciousness of this life and how to only focus on the aspects of it that are beneficial and supportive, rather than the aspects that bring me down and harm me. I hope that I will keep this insight with me until it one day will be my turn to let go of this body so that I can let go with ease and be able to help others too. 

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16 thoughts on “Death and the Dying Process: a Personal Reflection From a Westerner Living in the East

  1. Dear Sisse,

    I am no one but another human being who start to get used to that feeling at the age of five when my father passed away.
    I was the youngest of seven sons and with my mother, we moved as we could.
    Later I realized that there was an even worse scenario :
    The parents loosing us, the sons.
    And this is so awful that don’t even have a name.
    But it happens. And it is so strong that, as my mother was suffering from dementia, we hide from her the death of two of my brothers.
    How precious and fragile is our life and how lucky we are to have contact with such Masters.
    Be Joyful all the time, because it could always be worst!
    Warm regards from Lisbon to you, Alex and your family.

    1. Thank you very much Helder for your response. It is very heart warming to read your words. Yes indeed, life is so precious and we really have to be joyful for all of the amazing circumstances we have. Much love from Alex and I and looking forward to seeing you in Portugal again – hopefully soon! Xo

  2. Dear Sisse,

    A big and warm hug from the other side of the planet.
    A teacher says that while there is sadness in dying, beneath that sadness there is deep peace.

    All the best,

    Raul

    1. Dear Raul, thank you for your note here – it’s nice to hear news from you! Sending much love back to you from Nepal. I hope you are well. Xo

  3. Thank you Sisse for this re-assuring message. I empathise with your pain, having lost both my parents – but when I was in my 60’s. Somehow it seems easier to accept death as one grows older. The pain is as great, if not greater, depending on the circumstances, but the understanding of the process is also greater, and with this comes greater acceptance of “what is”. One’s philosophy is so important, whatever age one is, and those who believe in reincarnation have an advantage over those who don’t, and I think they cope better with the whole process. As you so rightly point out, the problem with our western culture is that death is too much of a taboo subject and is not talked about enough and consequently we do not prepare for it mentally. Thank you.

    1. Dear David, thank you for your comment and note here and for sharing from your own life experiences. Yes I think there is a lot of insight and wisdom ripen in us if we make use of it as we age. I think that is the wonderful thing about getting older! As you say, we come close to and can easier accept ‘what is’. Wishing you well on your path and sending much love from Nepal. Sisse xo

  4. Very lovely dear Sisse. Thank you for sharing that. Bev and i lost our daughter Alison through cancer last year and we feel soo blessed to have teachings passed down for so many years from such great masters, to help us accept and deal with it. Thanks again. With love and support, eric and Bev

    1. Dear Bev & Eric,
      I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter only a year ago. That must be very painful. Indeed, we are so blessed to have some tools for working with this loss, and to have teachings accessible that can help us better relate with reality as it is.
      Sending you much love from Nepal, and warm regards from Alex too! Sisse xo

  5. Life is hard. And no harder than when we lose someone we love. You have such grace, Sisse. You seem to have had such a wonderful relationship with your Dad. Thank you to you and Alex for showing such love and compassion for those of us in your lives. For conveying the benefits of your Buddhist practice in so many ways. I am glad you are writing and sharing your heart with us. Love from your California family.

    1. Dear Nicola. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for your kind words. This tender and painful quality to life that we all share is what brings us closer and it is what makes it all so much more precious! Yes I loved my dad very much.
      We are both sending you much love from across the world. Sisse xo

  6. Ohhhh…my sweet Sisse ,I totally identify with you on that sad ,disturbing ,difficult journey ..and all what can help/apply/relief during the “search for understanding ,enduring etc …
    It started for me already in very tragic way ,after my stepsons sudden death in a car accident …in consequence with my husbands Parkinson’s illness ,and the complications of it ,leading to his death ,just 2 years ago …my fathers quick health deterioration and death ,just this year /early January /
    I am so thankful to take up on evolving my deep interest, and passion for yoga practice years ago /which lead me ,to find the most beautiful way of understanding the world/others ,and myself /Awakening Kundalini…
    Thous amazing teachings of Buddhism keep me in hope to come back to Nepal ,and immerse totally in the study’s /which I wish to commit to /….
    Thank you for sharing ,lots of love
    Namaste
    Margarita

    1. Dear Margarita. Yes I think you are right. So much insight and wisdom can be gained through pain and difficulties. No doubt about it. I am so sorry for your loss as well and know that it must have been a tough few years, these last years. I am happy that it brought you to Nepal 🙂 Sending you much love from here. Sisse xox

  7. Such beautiful and touching words, my dear. This resonates so deeply. Thank you for so openly sharing your experience with us. Just by doing this, you’re breaking the taboo of death not being talked about, acknowledging that it is the most natural experience which we all share, and in that sense allowing for others to feel safe to do the same. I’ve been so inspired by your wisdom, vulnerability and strength throughout this time and in how you have directly utilized the Dharma to cope and find acceptance and peace within the pain. <3

    1. Oh my dear. Your friendship has been such a support throughout this whole experience, as always. Thank you for always being there 🙂 Much love. Xox

  8. Dear Sisse, Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on your recent loss. What a blessing it was to have been able to visit your dad at the beginning of his cancer journey, to offer help and support, and, to be with him at the end and for you and the family to experience the unconditional love and support that is Hospice. We met during my sabbatical in Denmark in June last year at the yoga weekend and, again at the cafe by the sea, we chatted about what things would mean for you and family, how to transition from health and life to disease and death. A new chapter in your journey and, that of your dad, Love and Blessings to you and your family, Jane F.

    1. Dear Jane. I remember you and our conversations very fondly 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and to comment on it as well. Indeed it is all just part of our ongoing journeys. Sending you much love from Nepal and from Alex too. Xo

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