by Jane Karp
THE NIGHT BEFORE my mother died, I was in a bit of a panic. I knew the end was near and I was uncertain about how to navigate this part of my mom’s journey.
It was May 27, 2017 and I had been in Connecticut since January, having arrived shortly after my mom came home from the hospital with a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. When my younger sister, Joanna, told her what the doctor had said, she replied that she had had a wonderful life; she rejected any invasive treatment and was put on hospice.
Twelve years earlier, after my dad passed away, Joanna had returned to our childhood home to live with my mom. And now, since I was a relatively free agent, I offered to come and help care for my mom. Over the next four months Joanna and I were her primary caregivers. Our older sister, Anna, came every 4 weeks or so and stayed a week or longer. My niece, Jenny, and nephew, Alex, stayed for long periods of time. Both were invaluable. Alex had three years of experience as a hospice nurse.
While caregiving was definitely challenging and stressful (for me anyway), in many ways it was quite an uplifted situation. Joanna had the closest relationship to my mom and with her kind and loving heart, set the golden standard for care. My mother was easy to care for, surprisingly cheerful, accepting and unafraid. Grateful for the care she was receiving. And our “team” was committed to keeping her comfortable and happy.
The house was large enough to comfortably accommodate all of us. During the months after my mom’s diagnosis, we massaged her feet, played music for her, cooked her favorite foods and filled her room with fresh flowers. We entertained friends and relatives, read books to her, played rummy cube and cards, watched movies. Overall, she seemed happy with the quality of her life during these final months.
My mom was a very kind, compassionate and deeply caring person. Her generosity, it seemed to me, included and extended beyond the material.
She was sharing with us the challenging time of her body and mind’s decline, showing us up close “the stormy waves of old age, sickness and death” – important truths about life, the human body and letting go, as well as how one might meet these challenges with humility, dignity and grace.
About 10 days before my mom died, she stopped eating and began sleeping a lot. I sent off an email to Joanne at Sukhasiddhi asking if I could contact Lama Dondrup for prayers. Joanne was extremely helpful and comforting and offered to send out an email to the sangha. Lama Dondrup responded with kindness and agreed to do prayers for my mom.
All five of us were there in the final days. Things got more intense and stressful. My mom was having difficulty breathing, and we were afraid she was experiencing pain that seemed unresponsive to the medicine. Fortunately, though, things progressed rapidly and the discomfort seemed to resolve itself. Her breathing became less labored and she continued to sleep.
On the evening of May 27, I sent off an urgent email to Lama Dondrup, saying the end seemed near and asking what I, or we, could do to help my mom transition. I was extremely relieved – and very fortunate indeed – to hear back from Lama Dondrup right away. She had suggestions that I took to heart.
That evening we took turns sitting vigil with my mom throughout the night. Lama Döndrup had suggested chanting Chenrezig’s mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. Luckily, I had a recording of the mantra on my Ipod. During my two-hour watch, I played the mantra and chanted along with it. This was an enormous help to me.
It allowed me to focus and calm my mind. In addition, I felt I was invoking help for my mom’s transition.
My mom, who was Jewish, didn’t believe in God or particularly resonate with any spiritual beings or teachers. So when Lama Döndrup suggested I do a guided visualization bringing in the love and warm embrace of a spiritual being, I knew this would not work for my mom. What she did love was the ocean, the seasons, birds, trees. I decided to use a couple of these images to bring solace and inspiration in her final moments.
At 10 a.m. the next morning, there was a sudden shift in my mom’s breathing. We all gathered around her bed. I began talking to my mom, suggesting images of her swimming in the vast ocean on a beautiful warm sunny day, floating on her back, and riding the gentle waves. I told her to imagine herself flying free like a bird in the boundless blue sky. I trusted that my mom could hear me and was listening.
Then at some point, I gently touched the crown of her head and told her that if she could, it would be best to leave her body through the top of her head, as Lama Döndrup had told me that this would be best. I sensed that this happened … and then she was gone. I felt her spirit fly free. It was a peaceful transition and my mom looked translucent, radiant and beautiful.
Jane Karp is a member of Sukhasiddhi where she attends classes and retreats.