This was a two day seminar, led by Judy Arpana, held in Sydney back in October 06.
Jess asked me to go on a two day course with her, “about dying”. I agreed, booked, and then tried not to think about it too much. Until suddenly I was there. Feeling a bit confronted and scared.
I want to preface this review by saying that I wanted to write a journal entry about the course shortly after I attended, but could never overcome the feeling that words were going to be inadequate for so many of the things I’d come to understand. It almost feels like I absorbed knowledge during the course rather than learned things – which means that I think it’s going to translate poorly to the written word, despite my best efforts. Anyway, here goes…
The course was held in a quiet, leafy environment in the grounds of a private school. Judy spent a lot of time and effort to make us each feel comfortable. There were about 10 or 12 participants, I think, and it quickly became clear that these were sympathetic, genuine people.
It also became clear that the course was grounded mostly in Buddhist philosophy. This wasn’t pushed in any way, though, and the course was conducted in such a way that it didn’t preclude any other religious beliefs. For example, Jess as a committed Christian seemed very comfortable with everything that was said.
I got off to a great start by crying almost as soon as I first spoke, partly because of a strong sense of vulnerability, but mostly because the realisation struck me fully that I was attending this course because my friend was dying and I was really scared about that – both for her and for myself. Fortunately, the atmosphere that Judy had created meant that I didn’t have to feel embarrassed about crying, and soon enough I was so interested in what we were talking about and doing that I forgot to be so upset.
These are some of the things we covered in the course:
- We talked about: What is it that scares you about dying? To actually articulate that, and why, and then to discuss whether those fears are well-founded, and whether there’s anything you can do to address them – brought a great sense of relief.
- We talked about grief, and the different forms it can take, and the different stages you go through with it. We also talked about the manifold sources of grief that usually go unacknowledged. For example, every time you conclude a chapter in your life (e.g. moving house) is a potential source of grief, and it helps to acknowledge it as such.
- We talked about how to reconcile “thinking positive” with wanting to be pragmatic in your acceptance of a terminal diagnosis. If you “think positive” are you stuck in denial, or if you’re pragmatic are you “giving up”? I know Jess was really struggling with this at the time, and I think the course really helped her.
- We talked about how to “live each day as if it were your last”, when the timeframe of your death is uncertain. You might want to spend all your money traveling, but that’s not practical if it then turns out you live for years and years to come.
- Judy pointed out that we’re all dying, not just those of us with a terminal diagnosis. That may sound obvious, but it had an impact. I was there for Jess, but actually I was there for myself, too.
- We did a series of short meditations, which was something I’d never really done before. On the second day, once we were ready for it, we did a “dying meditation”- where Judy talked us through what it would actually feel like to die… the stages the body goes through. The sensation throughout was one of a gradual closing down and slipping away. It was actually quite fascinating, a bit confronting, but also strangely reassuring.
- We discussed the importance of funerals for family and friends; and the importance of having it how you want, not being constrained by tradition unless you want to be.
- And we discussed practical stuff, about the importance of a will. A will is really not negotiable – everyone MUST write one. If you don’t, you’re just not being fair to the people you love most in the world… who in the midst of their grief will have to deal with a bureaucratic tangle that you could have spared them if only you’d written a will.
I felt quite fragile at the end of the course, but very different from how I felt at the start. Where at the beginning I had felt confronted and vulnerable, I now felt exposed, but peaceful, serene, and strong somehow.
I came away from the course thinking that everyone should do a course like it, not just people who are confronted with the likelihood of a death in the near term. And now that Jess is gone, and I’m slowly getting used to that idea, I’ve been able to reflect on how much this course has helped me.
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