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What can you say to someone whose loved one (e.g. spouse or parent) is dying?

Assume if you can that in the West, e.g. Europe and America, although people (strangers) might have heard the first thing about Buddhism, but they haven't formally practised it nor intentionally studied its doctrines in any detail (what if they've just seen some "fake Buddha quotes" for example). So, although a simple catchphrase (perhaps just a few words of Dhamma) might help a Buddhist as a "reminder", someone else (a non-Buddhist) might not recognise/understand that.

Or I would ask, what you could you even say to a layperson who does know some Buddhism -- except that most of the people who I'm likely to contact don't, and I doubt it's a moment to begin to lecture them (uninvited). For example a simple statement like, "Don't be attached", might sound like, "Don't be ill" -- or, "abandon that person" -- which might seem impractical, too academic, or even cruel if you don't understand the context (and might need more explanation than is possible in the context). Or for example, saying, "Buddhist doctrine says that..." sounds like they're being lectured, and at a moment when they're concerned about something other than Buddhism (so maybe that too is not the right way to frame or to open a conversion).

I don't want to talk too much about what I think the difficulties are, so I'll try to stop; if you have questions (about this question), you can a comment to ask.

But as well as being reluctant to lecture someone unasked, I'm generally not sure what to say if someone tells me that they're suffering somehow. For example if someone is mentally ill and tells you something about (or something based on) their delusions or hallucinations, I think I've read that maybe people shouldn't encourage (nor perpetuate nor even argue against) those fantasies (e.g. "yes" and "tell me more about that" or "that's untrue"), and instead you're supposed to talk about consensual (maybe conventional) realities. So I worry that "tell me about your suffering" (or even "yes that's sad" or "I'm so sorry") might only reinforce the suffering, especially if I've nothing to add, nor even understand how to steer their thinking (steer the topic) by asking questions -- possibly (at the risk of being prejudiced) it might be good for them to experience "brahmaviharas", or "recollection of virtue", or even just some "calm" etc., but I'm not sure how someone might get there by my asking them questions -- so maybe that (asking questions) is not the right approach either, or is it?

I quote this answer as an ideal -- slightly out of context, because that was posted as an antithesis of "fear" or aversion -- but perhaps this is an example of an ideal:

... basically leave all Dharma-Theory home and dive into the world, while learning to be authentic and helpful. The end result of this is an image of someone very warm, strong, and open, who has enough inner power and confidence that he or she can be very down-to-earth, very real, without formalities and artificial boundaries that come from fear. This is very different from the aloof ascetic image cultivated on the previous stage. It is someone very warm and very real.

The absence of overt Dharma-Theory (in relating to others) might be appropriate (though perhaps you're informed by theory, or practice, even if you're not teaching it formally/explicitly).

I guess I'm looking for answers from personal experience (your own or someone else's) -- what kind of thing can you say that actually works in the circumstance, is helpful?

When I've tried to do this in the past, it was by trying to share (recollect, recount) what might have been helpful in retrospect from my own experience (of a relationship with a dying loved one). My doing that might depend on making assumptions about the people I'm talking to, so, and I've only limited experience -- perhaps you can tell me more experience or even generalise from experience ... or not?

It happens and will happen a lot (that I meet people in this situation), it would be good to be better prepared for that if possible.


At the risk of being off-topic (maybe delete it if it is), here's a story -- as an example of what seems to be a beneficial effect of a kind word (i.e. it "kept me unexpectedly calm").

Someone posted a question on Twitter -- What is the kindest thing a stranger has done or said to you? -- which has thousands of replies.

And one of the answers to that question, which I thought was remarkable, was this one (quoted here):

One of my twins was born with multiple heart and esophageal defects. Had open-heart surgery at 47 hours old, weighing only 4.5 lbs. When the surgeon described the procedure, it sounded impossible. But the surgery went well. He has more to go, but we let our guard down.

24 hours later, get a call that he's failing (he was at one hospital, my wife and his twin at the other, and I'm running back and forth). It looks grim; Plan A is an untested long-shot, and there's no Plan B. I race out of Hospital 1 to grab a cab to Hospital 2.

Get in cab, driver asks me how I want to get there. Exhausted and angry, I snarl "my son is dying at Hospital 2, so whatever way you think is faster."

We drive in silence for a very long time.

As we get near, he starts to ask me what is wrong, and I tell him. He replies, as we pull into the hospital, "I am Muslim, and tomorrow is Friday. I will pray for him all five times tomorrow." And as I hop out of the cab, I hear him start to pray, "bismallah ar-rahman...."

As I raced thru the hospital, that one small act of kindness, after I had been so surly to him at the start, stuck with me, and for some reason kept me unexpectedly calm during a night of staring at the Plan A machine, hoping it would defy expectations and work.

(It worked.)

It wasn't some huge thing. But that small act of compassion made such a huge difference as I spent the night alone w this insanely strong but insanely sick little boy--and who is now quite healthy.

It's one of the few things that still chokes me up when I think abt those days.

I suppose the bits of Islamic doctrine which a non-Muslim might know are "Inshallah" (something to do with awareness that things happen according to God's will i.e. not always our will) -- and "bismallah ar-rahman" (which the OP quoted and remembered) i.e., "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful" -- maybe any outcome is "a mercy".

Please don't answer that that's not Buddhist doctrine, that isn't what I'm asking -- I quote this as an example, because I'm impressed with the effect[s] it had on the person to whom it was said.

My question might be, what could a Buddhist (instead of a Muslim) possibly say in that situation? It might be difficult if the person you're talking to knows even less about Buddhism than about Islam -- so they might not "recognise" what you say. But Dhamma is "evident", isn't it, so maybe there's always some common ground already, whether they've ever studied Buddhism or not.

What might you say that could help a stranger? Or help a friend who you're not going to see again, maybe someone who lives far away? What if it's just a short conversation, in person -- or, what if you're writing a personal letter to distant family or an old friend in another country (or maybe a phonecall would be better)?

One other thing I see in the story above is that a person who is suffering will make things worse -- "Exhausted and angry, I snarl" and "after I had been so surly to him". So it might be important to help, it affects everyone, even including those they're trying to care for; but it can also be difficult, a time when they might be more troubled, less tolerant and less outgoing or communicative themselves -- i.e. more "surly" (or if not surly, more guarded).

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Since I am old, this happens with some frequency. A single wordless look with metta, eye-to-eye, is all that is needed. If a hug would be welcomed (and only if it would be welcomed), then it can be offered. Talk only when spoken to and respond briefly, simply and kindly. An offer to help is always appreciated, however.

If the person is distant, the challenge is greater. One can always offer to listen. Indeed, sometimes people just need to express their feelings and listening can be a gift.

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    That is good to know, thank you, in person. Sometimes I'm worried when there's no eye-contact; when I hear that the people are a bit alone; and/or an ocean away. – ChrisW Mar 16 at 21:37
  • Ah. Thanks for the clarification. Distance does indeed make it difficult. Edited answer. – OyaMist Mar 16 at 22:32
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It depends on the beliefs and ideas of the person that you have the intention to help. If the person belongs to a community that absolutely have fundamentalist beliefs that is not aligned with the nature of reality then just be with the person with your presence, give him/her a cup of tea etc.

If the person you want to help has more moderate ideas and beliefs you can talk him/her like this: Q&A - Thich Nhat Hanh - What do you think about death?

The Buddha said that contemplation of death is very rewarding. Because if you know what death is then you become alive.

Or like this:

At a personal level, as a Buddhist practitioner, I deliberately visualise and think about death in my daily practice. Death is not separated from our lives. Due to my research and thoughts on death, I have some guarantee and some conviction that it will be a positive experience.

Also, especially in modern times people are getting more and more mind identified, thought identified, emotion identified beings. So it is becoming harder to help other people with talking or being with our presence etc. And there are some mentall ilness in some people that makes it nearly impossible for other people to reduce their sadness in such situations. So it is better to try to help people suffer less, but don't have expectations that we can really make a big difference in their state of mind. In the past it was easier, but people are becoming more and more thought and emotion identified beings and also people's minds are getting more and more dense. The best thing that could help a person to suffer less can be the person's spiritual practise that s/he did in the past, which can be fuel for the person to face the suffering in such difficult periods. Other than that whatever any other person does to the suffering person to make him/her suffer less, it would always be very limited help or would not be able to help the person at all. So we must accept the uncontrollability of life and forms, and our limitations to help others(especially non-Buddhist/non-spiritual people) as well.

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    It's good to quote a bit from a reference, so I quoted something, from the very start of Thich Nhat Hanh's talk -- if you prefer a different part of that to quote, please do. – ChrisW Mar 16 at 21:00
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    The best thing that could help a person to suffer less can be the person's spiritual practise that s/he did in the past Yes, this says, "... a number of stories in which bhikkhus comfort a dying bhikkhu by asking him to reflect on what he has attained through the practice, which was apparently a common way of encouraging a dying bhikkhu to focus his thoughts on the best object possible." I wonder how to use that for a layperson or a non-Buddhist -- what might they have "attained", and – ChrisW Mar 16 at 21:01
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    what is the "best object possible" -- I assume that virtues and altruism (metta and mudita too) are (or were in the past) included in the relationship, perhaps this is a question of how to focus on that, even when "stressed" or "suffering". – ChrisW Mar 16 at 21:01
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It would be arrogant to even imagine that I can give one piece of advice that would be applicable to all situations. But I guess I can present one idea I got out of my own mistakes in trying to help, and from the kindness of others who helped me when I was in trouble.

Give them confidence. Give them a sense of certainty using as few words as practically possible. You don't have to provide any evidence or any arguments for your confidence. In fact, the less you get into details and pretend that you really understand their particular situation, the better.

If the loved one may recover, give them confidence that "she will recover". No need to explain why. She just will.

If the loved one may not recover and the caregiver believes in afterlife, give them confidence that "she will be alright". Again, there is no need for any explanations.

If you have zero information about them, give them confidence that "everything will be alright".

The words don't matter as much as the strong sense of confidence that you're sharing with them. For this to work, you must be strong and stable, with no doubts about what you're saying, and project that sense directly, firmly, and gently at them. Perhaps, with a hint of humbleness and acceptance of whatever life throws at us.

In Tibetan Buddhism they say, the best dana (gift) is protection from fear and the best protection from fear is an unshakable sense of confidence.

  • Thank you -- I hadn't thought of "confidence" as an avenue, target, or state; and it is good to identify a target, isn't it? I couldn't reconcile "no doubts about what you're saying" with saying "she will recover", when the assessment is at best only that "the loved one may recover" -- instead of confidence in the outcome I try to convey confidence in the process ("what you're doing makes a huge difference"). – ChrisW Mar 16 at 22:50
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    One of the 'Zen stories' says, "Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe", and, so, I've been wondering, if I tried to advise about intent (or cause), "Try to X" (or rephrased, "I'm sure you can X") then what would "X" be: if not "hope": then, "comfort"? Or "no remorse" as the ambition? Or the Dhammapada's verse 6 says, about knowledge of death, "settle your quarrels", but who needs to hear that? – ChrisW Mar 16 at 22:53
  • Your saying that "X" should be "protect from fear" and "promote confidence" might help me to answer that (i.e. about intent). And that would fit with this, which says, when choosing a partner, "Find wise people who cause no fear or worry". Your answer is less wordy though, i.e., "as few words as possible" and "the words don't matter", and "strong sense of confidence" with "no need to explain why". – ChrisW Mar 16 at 22:53
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How do you talk to someone whose loved one is dying? Especially someone who is a non-Buddhist or not deeply into Buddhist teachings.

Ajahn Brahm as a young monk was once admitted to a hospital in Thailand, due to malaria. His teacher Ajahn Chah visited him and he thought Ajahn Chah was going to comfort him. Instead, Ajahn Chah said something to the effect of "either you will get better, or you will die, that's all" and then immediately left.

While that's a teaching on accepting anicca, it's probably not suitable to tell that to non-Buddhists, or even Buddhists, in most cases.

Instead, I suggest that you can draw upon metta, by saying, "I will keep your loved one in my prayer, that she may always be happy, healthy, safe and at ease" or "I'll pray that she will get better, so that she will become and remain happy and healthy again."

Or if their loved one has passed away, you can say, "I'll pray that wherever she is now, she would always be happy, healthy, safe and at ease."

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    Ah yes: "prayer" exists in Buddhism too -- i.e. metta bhavana. – ChrisW Mar 16 at 21:36
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When my Dad died last year, the only context a faith-orientation had to be viewed in was that my Dad was opposed to organized religion in any form, and asked everyone representing any kind of religion to leave the room. In other words, he did not find others trying to reconcile him to God to be helpful. He never said he was atheist, or agnostic, but it was "I don't need your help" on that.

For the most part we had to support him in that.

But your question is about how do you support someone who has a loved one who is dying, and the answers to that can be as varied as all of the many possible reactions people can have to the complexities existing in their relationships to one another. Being supportive and compassionate here, initially means listening. After you have moved past the polite exchange, and the conversation is moving deeper, we must perform the rare act of empathetic listening. Very often the family of dying persons begins to exhibit something like PTSD symptoms, it's part of the grieving process. It's very stressful, and sometimes people involved turn against each other. Stress leads to fight-or-flight (or freeze) reactions. Again, if you are someone people can talk to, there's a lot on their mind. Then there's reactions to the medical care system. They are already hurting, so every addition hurt just adds to that. Make sure they can contact you, if need be. Offer more support than what they think they might need. It's a fast changing scenario.

What Is Normal Grieving, and What Are the Stages of Grief?

Your feelings may happen in phases as you come to terms with your loss. You can’t control the process, but it’s helpful to know the reasons behind your feelings. Doctors have identified five common stages of grief:

  • Denial: When you first learn of a loss, it’s normal to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotion. It’s a defense mechanism.
  • Anger: As reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless. These feelings later turn into anger. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. To be angry with a loved one who died and left you alone is natural, too.
  • Bargaining: During this stage, you dwell on what you could’ve done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts are “If only…” and “What if…” You may also try to strike a deal with a higher power.
  • Depression: Sadness sets in as you begin to understand the loss and its effect on your life. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.
  • Acceptance: In this final stage of grief, you accept the reality of your loss. It can’t be changed. Although you still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life.

Every person goes through these phases in his or her own way. You may go back and forth between them, or skip one or more stages altogether. Reminders of your loss, like the anniversary of a death or a familiar song, can trigger the return of grief.

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