Notes on preparing for a loved one’s death

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These notes were taken from a talk given after the death of a student’s mother.

In the weeks or months before they die

  • Express your positive feelings for them. Tell them you love them (write a letter if you can’t speak with them directly). Don’t wait until they are no longer there to discover and express your love.
  • Encourage them to share their love and kindness with others. Help them remember all of the love and kindness that they have given and received from others during their lifetime.
  • Encourage them to remember the beneficial things they did in their life.
  • If they express regrets, listen with kindness.
  • Clear up your relationship with them. If you need to forgive them or apologize to them, do that. If they apologize to you, accept their amends.
  • Encourage them to forgive whomever they need to forgive and to apologize to whomever they need to apologize.
  • Encourage family members to do kind things to help the dying family member.
  • Talk about end-of-life issues—"living will," medication, religious services, burial or cremation, etc.—if and when they are willing to do so. Let go of your own agenda of what you want them to talk about or how you want them to die. Listen to them with your heart. Talk about what they want to talk about, not what you think they should think about.
  • Let the person tell you how much (if any) pain medication they need. Since the person is terminal, there’s no need to be concerned with addiction. On the other hand, avoid sedating them more than is needed.
  • Get in touch with your own issues about death, and use your Dharma practice to help you work with them.

At the time of death

  • Make the room as quiet and peaceful as possible.
  • Be peaceful and calm. Avoid crying in the room.
  • Mentally give them a heartfelt hug and let them know of your love for them, but do not cling or encourage them to cling.
  • If it seems necessary, remind them that their children and other family members will be all right after they pass away.
  • If person is of another faith, talk to them in the language of that faith—use words, symbols, and concepts that are familiar to them. Encourage them to have faith and to generate a kind heart towards others. If they are not religious, talk about compassion or loving-kindness. That will help their mind to be calm and peaceful.
  • Recite mantra or say prayers for them, quietly or out loud, depending on what is appropriate, as they are dying.
  • Don’t do anything to bring up distress (old hurts, etc.).
  • Frequently the person who is about to die will wait to die until family members have left the room and they are either alone or with someone who is not family. Don’t feel that you "did something wrong" or abandoned them if they die while you are not there.
  • Remember: you can’t prevent anyone from dying.
  • Trust them in their process and be supportive.
  • Tell surrounding family members that we are fond of them (we love them). Say thank you to them.

After death

  • If it is possible, allow the body to be untouched for three days after breathing has stopped, in order to give time for the consciousness to leave the body. This usually needs to be pre-arranged with the hospital or family. Do not touch the body during this time. If the body starts to smell or if you see fluid come from the nostrils, it indicates that the consciousness has left and the body may be moved before the three days are up. If it is not possible to leave the body untouched for that long (it often isn’t), then leave it untouched for as long as possible. When you first touch it, touch it at the crown of the head.
  • After the person has died, first touch their crown (top of the head) and say, "Go to the Pure Land" or "Take a precious human rebirth." Or, according to their faith, say, "Go to heaven or to a safe place."
  • Dedicate for them to have a precious human rebirth: May they have each and every conducive circumstance to practice everything they need for enlightenment. Pray that their transition to the next life is free from fear or anxiety. Express in words or in your thoughts all the good wishes you have for them.

Meditation and prayers to do after a dear one dies

The Abbey altar, prepared for Medicine Buddha puja.

It is very beneficial to do prayers and meditations on behalf of those who have died.

After a dear one dies, it is very beneficial for people who are close to him/her to do prayers and meditations on that person’s behalf. These are described below. It is also helpful to offer his/her possessions to the poor and needy, and to make offerings to temples, monasteries, or Dharma centers. You may also request people there to do meditations and prayers for the person.

Do the Chenrezig practice. Visualize your dear one in front of you, with Chenrezig on their head. As you recite the mantra, visualize much light and nectar from Chenrezig flowing into them, completing purifying all obscurations, negativities, distress, disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, fear, etc., and bringing all enlightened qualities—love, compassion, generosity, wisdom, etc. If you prefer to do this meditating on the Buddha, then refer to the Mediation on the Buddha.

At the end, dedicate for the happiness and enlightenment of all sentient beings* and especially pray:

May [person’s name] have a precious human life. May he/she meet fully qualified Mahayana spiritual guides, have all conducive circumstances for practice, generate the three principal aspects of the path (the determination to be free, the altruistic intention, and wisdom realizing emptiness), and quickly become a Buddha. Through my Dharma practice, may I benefit this person, leading him/her on the path to awakening. By my practice becoming stronger and purer, may I be able to teach this person the Dharma in future lives.

If you wish, you can also recite The Extraordinary Aspiration of Samantabhadra for the person. The practice of the Medicine Buddha can also be done.

Since family and friends have a strong connection with the person, their doing meditation and dedications for them is important. If you can do these on the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th days after their death, it is especially good.

This article is available in German: Vorbereitung auf den Tod eines geliebten Menschen.

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