Helping the Dying

IMG_2149This year I found myself in situations where I experienced death firstly of friends who lost their sons aged 16 and 13 and recently my mum.   My mum died of ovarian cancer on the 20th December 2013 after spending three weeks in hospital.

Perhaps you have found yourself in a situation where you have never experienced death or know nothing about dying.  Or you have a loved one who is ill and dying and have no idea what to do.

I think this is how most of us feel.  We have such a culture of fear and denial of death that we fell hopelessly inadequate in the face of it.

“Death is a subject that is evaded, ignored and denied by our youth-worshipping, progress-oriented society” says Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the Death: The final Stage of Growth.  Yet death fills our television and movie screens, news reports and other media. We almost have become apathetic to death, until it touches us personally. We experience death in relationships, our jobs, and our goals and we think nothing about how this is similar to the death of a loved one.  Somehow there is a split in our psyche: Death is part of our violent world “out there”.  But we don’t accept it “in here” by coming to terms with our own mortality, by preparing in life to meet death.

The mysteries around death and dying are unnecessary.  There is no reason for us not to learn to care for the dying.  In fact, there is every reason we should, because caring for those we love, or for any reason during their final days, is the last greatest gift we can offer the person.  In fact, learning to come to terms with death we allow our ego to step aside and provide the space for the dying to die.

I had limited, in fact no experience on how to prepare my mum for death.  I suspected that my shamanic perspective of her transition would need to be addressed differently to her.  I also understood that death was perhaps not a subject matter discussed in detail within the Anglican church she attended.  Traditionally in African customs, death is a taboo subject, it is seen as a pre-emptying a person’s death.  I recall too, how one of my friends was horrified that I had approached the subject of funeral arrangements with my mum while she lay in hospital.  This got me thinking of how so far removed my circle of peers are around the subject of death.  It’s almost as if death does not exist.

While grappling for a method that I could use to assist my mum with a process she would be comfortable with. I recalled when I took refuge as a Buddhist, in early 2000.  We were introduced to the concept of dying, by one of my teachers, Rob Nairn, who had written a book Living Dreaming and Dying.  In it Rob offered a modern psychological perspective to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  In helping the dying he outlines some principles we can follow which I found very useful in approaching the out there to help my mother in her transition. These principles may be useful for those not familiar with the shamanic processes around dying.  I will discuss in my next blog Why are we afraid to die from a shamanic perspective in relation to the in here,.  I believe it is important that we address death in all aspects of our life and not only in assisting others theirs.  For how can we help someone die, when we have not addressed our fears around the concept of death in our own personal life experiences.

The principles outlined in the book Living Dreaming and Dying are as follows:


We are all going to die.  We need to check our attitude towards death in general

  • Reflection – at the end of a day sit quietly and watch the setting sun. Notice how the day fades to night and the light leaves the sky, observe the ending.  Observing this allows one to accept reality.  We are impermanent, all of us.
  • Open and Honesty – Be honest with yourself and with the dying person.  There is a perception that we should not tell the person they are dying.  I experienced this with my mum – the doctors were treating her to a barrage of well-meaning but transparent lies and pretense. “We are conducting a few more tests to establish how to go about treating you.  We don’t know the extent of the cancer”. This is cruel and unnecessary.


This is all about energy flow.  When we have problems or difficulties, we seize up and go all quiet, tense and withdraw.  Psychologically this is dangerous because it stops the normal healthy flow of energy, like a knot in a hose pipe.  As the water pressure reaches the knot this fills us with tension and increases our stress, causing us great suffering.  We all know this and instinctively know we have to let it out.  The most common way of doing this is by:

  • Talking – people approaching death usually need to talk, to be spoken to and heard in a real and sensitive way.  Often people have unresolved issues in themselves and with others.  To help them deal with this, through simple prays, affirmations or forgiveness prayers if the person is open to it.
  • Listening – try not to focus on the words only, hear what the person is voicing in the words.
  • Reading – select passages from their favorite book or poem.
  • Touching – use touch as another means of communication, this could be massaging their feet or hands and or holding their hands etc
    • Savor the Past – as death approaches we sometimes allow problematic issues to overshadow us and relationships.  We can reverse this tendency in a beneficial way by reminiscing, by revisiting happy and positive periods with old friends and family.  In Africa, congregating for a funeral is a way for family and friends to reminisce about the dead person, this is usually done through song and dance.  The world witnessed this at Nelson Mandela recent memorial and congregation at his residence in Johannesburg.  Interestingly, in  Shamanic teachings,  some of our medicines are story telling and dance. This is not to deny and suppress past unhappiness but to bring balance and happiness into the present.  A happy mind is more relaxed and more at peace.  Allowing the heart to know some gladness in the face of death.  While dying this triggers a spontaneous re-run of our entire lifetime like a fast-forward movie.
    • Releasing the Dying –  it is important to understand that when a person is  in coma they can hear you.  Or perhaps there is no chance of a recovery.  The person dying may be hanging on out of concern for someone who is still alive.  That person could be you, and you need to talk to the dying person.  Tell the dying person that you are okay, and they need not feel responsible for you.  Allow him/her to face their new future.  Tell the person you love them and you will miss them, but that their passing is not the end of the world.  You will survive and they must go on their way.
    • Don’t Play Games – avoid saying things like “Everything is going to be all right”.  This is usually not true in life and we do not know what state the dying person’s mind is in.  All we can do, is our best by providing a peaceful environment for them and help them resolve issues.  Being honest will help a dying person.



Sometimes we can help a dying person deal with negative and painful emotions that well up as death approaches.  The classic process of dying involves some or all of the following stages. These are denial, anger, bargaining with G, depression and acceptance.  In addition other reactions are mixed up with fear, anxiety, hope and guilt. Interestingly, I have observed the dying process as not being particular only to a dying person but I too experienced them in my grieving process. I swing between the denial, anger, acceptance and anxiety.

Remember that a dying person is experiencing the death of the body, and not the mind. Keeping in mind that energy does not die, a dying person is in transition from Form to Formlessness.  In this knowledge, I find the comfort, knowing my mum has only transitioned into higher energy dimension.


It is good and useful to know theories and techniques that may help us cope with a person whom is dying. But this is all worth nothing if we lack compassion and the desire to help.  If you have the desire to help and care for others, you will instinctively do what is needed.  Even if you feel inadequate, your caring and loving will communicate itself to the dying person as a great comfort and blessing.  I often felt very inadequate witnessing the pain my mother experienced, but put on the brave face and gave her all the compassion I was able to give her.  However, once I was alone, I cried allowing myself to release my pain in watching my mother die.


I am deeply humbled and blessed to have observed my mother dying. This may seem to be a insensitive statement, for in all this I am aware that my role going forward is to be of service to others whom will experience a loved one dying.   And for her courage too for co-creating her process of death, for in doing so, she has healed and ensured her future descendants of not experience the suffering and pain she endured.  I shall eternally  be Great Full and Thank Full to her for being my teacher in this life time.  I shall miss her physical presences every day.

I dedicate this post to my mum, Elizabeth Shirley, for you are Proud Spirit.

Resources that you may find useful:

Forgiveness Prays:

  • Blanket forgiveness – “ I forgive myself, I forgive everyone, I forgive all past experiences I am free”
  • Howard Wills
  • Ho’oponopono –“I am sorry, Please forgive me, I love you. Thank you”

My discussion on PowerFm on Wednesday 2 September 2015.

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