[by Michael Damian]
When my mother become terminally ill, I went out to Las Vegas, where she was living, to take care of her. My mother was a very devout Catholic and raised us as devout Catholics. As I grew older, however, I became increasingly disaffected by certain perspectives of the Catholic Church but retained many positive values from my Christian experience as I explored other spiritual traditions, ultimately finding a home in Tibetan Buddhism. My mother, understandably, did not share my enthusiasm, and her disapproval was the source of some pain.
My mother loved people and loved to give service, but there was also a dark side to her. She was very complicated emotionally, and she acted out a lot of the trauma she had experienced as a child on my father, my sister, and myself. By the time she became ill, I was fortunate to have worked out most of my feelings toward her but still did not see a connection between her personal interactions and her attendance at daily Mass and the rosaries she said all the time. She had a very special connection with the Blessed Mother; in fact, she had Blessed Mothers all over the house, in the garage, in the garden, guarding her hat collection in the carport. I could never figure out, however, how could she be saying the rosary every day and be so awful at times.
My sister and I both had had hospice training, so by the time my mother was moving into active dying, we weren’t afraid to be involved in the process. Inspired by Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings on death and dying in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, I wanted to help my mother have as good a death as possible. Every day I found myself dropping more and more of my judgmental mind and becoming more in supporting her to have confidence in her own object of devotion. Even she could no longer talk, I wouldn’t leave the room without reminding her of the Blessed Virgin’s presence nearby. And then I would go into my room and pour over Rinpoche’s book for guidance. One day, when it seemed to me my mother was especially suffering in her semicomatose state, I was inspired to read to her the chapter about what happens to the body when it dies and how to meditate at the time of death. To my surprise, I found myself naturally translating the Buddhist terms so my mother could understand their essence as Christian. But I was still of two minds: I’d mediate in my room with my mala [Buddhist prayer beads] and then go into my mother’s room and say the rosary for her. Since I was staying alone in the house with her, I would check on her a couple of times a night, and at some point, I saw myself trying to manage the situation like some spiritual cowboy, with my mala in one hand and a rosary in the other, trying to meet both my spiritual needs and hers. In that moment when I was fervently saying “ my” prayers and “ her “ prayers and “ our “ prayers, everything exploded., and any conceptual distinction between Buddhist and Catholic, between my mother and me, just dissolved. My mala became my rosary became my mala – in one seamless loving regard.
Prior to this, I thought I had reached a deep place of forgiveness for my mother, but in that moment, I realized some thing deeper – I did not want her to suffer at all anymore, no matter how much harm she had caused me or how much that harm might affect me in the future. And that became the dominant focus for me being with her until she died. Even my sister picked up on this energy and began behaving in the same way. Although my mother couldn’t speak, we kept gently encouraging her to let go of anything she might be holding against us as we had already done for her. We continued to encourage her to focus on the Virgin Mary above her head, ready to receive and comfort her. We just wanted her leave this life having complete faith in her own daily Christian practice.
In the moment she breathed her last breath on Mother’s Day, she died very easily. We continued talking quietly to her, telling her she had now entered this odd but very natural process called death and encouraged her to keep connecting to the Blessed Mother. And we had total confidence this was helpful to her. In fact, it was so total and complete for us that to this day we are convinced that our mother had a blessed transition and her death purified much of which she needed to address in this lifetime.
From Buddhist Acts of Compassion, complied and edited by Pamela Bloom