On Dying, Pain, and Being Alone

In June 2022, Shelly Anderson received the lamp transmission to become a lay Dharma teacher in the Plum Village Tradition. In response to a message from Sister Linh Di, she shares her experience of practicing with a terminal cancer diagnosis.

I worry, will I die alone? Afraid? In pain?
The clematis in the back garden reminds me to enjoy the here and now.
The pink clematis just smiles at the sun and enjoys the warmth of the present.

~Shelley Anderson’s Insight gatha (True Great Harmony)

Dearest Shelley,

When I saw your name as a recipient for the Dharma Lamp in June, I was amazed – “Oh, she’s alive!”

Again and again during this retreat, I felt the truth of Thay’s words, “Because you are alive, everything is possible”. 

I deeply wished to ask you:

How does it feel to face death?

What’s worse: physical pain or the pain of separation?

How did you hold the worries about Françoise (your partner)?

Your younger one on the path,

Sister Chân Trăng Linh Dị

Shelly Anderson (right) with Sister Chan Khong after her lamp transmission

Dear Sister,

You asked good questions and I will try to answer them.

My guess is that there are as many ways to face death as there are human beings. Probably one very common way to face death is denial and refusal to think about it at all. I have thought about death since I was a small child, trying to grasp concepts like time and eternity and what happens after you die. My experience is that thinking about death can give a lot of meaning to life. It reminds me that life is fragile, precious, and that every minute should be cherished. It’s a reminder not to waste my time, but to concentrate on what is meaningful. When I first got my diagnosis I was in shock, which I think is nature’s kindly way of protecting you.

When I heard the oncologist say I had a year, maybe two, left to live, it felt like a punch to my gut. Mostly I remember Françoise’s gasp as if someone had punched her in her stomach, and I felt sorry for her. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for me to live without her, and I felt sad that I would be leaving her alone.

This prognosis helped me to focus however, and to understand and set my priorities:  first, to be a good companion to Françoise; secondly, to finish my novel. I have finished my novel and now have a wonderful support group that is trying to find an agent for it; I continue to try and be as helpful and kind to Françoise as I can.

I also decided early on that I did not want to blame or punish my body or think that it had somehow betrayed me. So I look kindly upon these cancer cells that are trying to proliferate inside me – they only want to live, like every other sentient being, but do not understand that their unlimited growth will actually kill their host and them with it. I look at them as unruly teenagers who want to experiment with everything and who do not yet realize that there are limits as to behaviour, limits which protect everyone.

I did not want to waste time complaining, “Why me? Why is this horrible thing happening to me?” The only answer to that is, “Why not me? Why should I be exempt from human suffering?”

I also had an insight – we all have exactly the same amount of time. No matter if you are a new born baby or a terminally ill patient. The only reality is the present moment. The future is a figment of the imagination and the past is gone.

The Five Remembrances really help me with this. Françoise and I try to recite them every night before we go to sleep. The inevitability of old age, illness, death, separation from loved ones – and then, what I always think is the hopeful, empowering bit – the fact that I still can act, that my deeds speak for me, represent me, will live on, in however faint ripples, after this particular aggregate disappears.

I do think about the legacy I will leave behind. I am grateful I was able to make my living doing meaningful work and am happy about the peace work I did. I am also alert to the fact that, if there is still some good I can do for others then I want to do it! I think I’m more generous now with money and material things.

I also wonder about what happens after I die. I actually have two seemingly contradictory feelings. When people I love die, I mourn and also have a strong sense that I will see them again when I die. I also sometimes think death will just be a black curtain descending, and puff – my candle is extinguished.  

When I get afraid of what happens next, I repeat the words, “energy can neither be created nor destroyed”.  There is a great web of Indra or chain of being that contains everything, so how can I fall out of this web? I find that very consoling. 

I have always associated death with being alone, forever, which is a pretty terrifying thought, at least for me (and which sometimes makes me wonder – is it death I am afraid of, or is it life I am afraid of?) But if I am energy in the end and a tiny strand in this great web, how can I fall out of it? I cannot. And that is very heartening.

Something Phap An said at the EIABEuropean Institute of Applied Buddhismalso strikes me as true, and very consoling – there is no individuality that survives, but there is continuity.

Sister Chan Duc’s mini Dharma talk in response to my insight gatha was very powerful for me and really helped chip away at my fear of dying. I have read there are three common concerns people have about dying: pain, being alone, and being a burden on loved ones. She addressed all of that, very clearly and compassionately.

Transmission teaching from Sister Chan Duc for Shelley

You have already done great work for peace and you are still doing great work for peace, in yourself and in the world. Your service in the International Fellowship of Reconciliation is what brought you to Thay. But there is another great work, which we all need to do, and that is the great work of no birth and no death.

Here is the Transmission Gatha for you.

The great work of no-birth and no-death Can be realized at any moment The true harmony of heart and mind Takes us to the shore of peace You will not be alone. None of us will be alone because we have the Sangha. We are a cell in the Sangha body. We come from the Sangha and we go back to the Sangha. We are not going anywhere and there is no "one" who is in pain. There may be pain but there is no "I" who is in pain. Great peace is the result of your lifetime's work. We manifest and we go into hiding, we "un-manifest". When you eat a biscuit, you see the biscuit in your hand before you put it in your mouth. The biscuit is manifesting as biscuit. But when you put it in your mouth and chew it, it is no longer manifesting as biscuit, it is manifesting as something else. But it doesn't die. It doesn't become nothing. It becomes a wonderful energy. That is the great work we can realize at any moment. Whatever we are doing we can recognize the manifesting and the going into hiding.

Regarding pain. I have been lucky and haven’t had too much physical pain in my life. The worst pain I have suffered is the mental confusion and despair of clinical depression. The idea of being separated from the people you love is an idea, hence not real. The reality of the pain of being separated from the people you love – well, if Françoise goes before me, I will find out about that. My sense is, it is like losing an arm. The arm will always be gone but you will learn how to live without it.

Paying attention to my breath does help me deal with minor physical pain. I remember being in the hospital after my cancer surgery. There was no acute pain, but I was feeling uncomfortable. So I tried to observe the pain, put it into words. There seemed to be a valley where the pain decreased, during the pause between my in-breath and out-breath, then arose again. But, I was also on morphine and I wonder if the drug had more to do with that than my breath! One thing that operation did teach me – I am not too worried about physical pain anymore, ’cause modern painkillers can be a blessing.

And being separated from Françoise: we can talk about this, which is also a blessing. We are trying to be as practical as possible – we have made wills, and I have planned my funeral service and basically tried to get my affairs in order so she will not have as much to organize.

I hope this helps, dear friend. Do you want to talk about this more? I’m very willing, because as I said, I think talking about death can make life more meaningful.

Peace, Shelley

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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