The preciousness of human life

Over the Christmas period, my Auntie died. The timing was fitting – both her parents, my grandparents, died in the lead up to Christmas some 34 years ago now. It’s funny how certain themes get woven in to the fabric of a family’s narrative.

I knew my Auntie’s death was imminent. Some four years ago, shortly after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she signed up to “Exit”, one of the the assisted suicide schemes available in Switzerland; a country she had made home since moving there in her early twenties. As her condition deteriorated, my Auntie mentioned her “option” more often. A necessitated stay in hospital before Christmas, no chance of returning home and being in too much pain lead her to say “enough is enough”. I cannot imagine the life she had to live these past few years, but I can understand it was too much and she had a choice to cease that suffering made available to her.

The day she decided to die, the 23rd December, was a sad day – my wife and I spent the afternoon with my Mum and Dad, marking the time of my Auntie’s death with the lighting of a candle surrounded by pictures of her, the family, good memories. We shared stories, our thoughts and feeling around death and dying, and we read the same passages that my Auntie had asked to be read by her friends accompanying her at her death bed. But there was something quite surreal about it all. Knowing this day WOULD come, but it had arrived so quickly.

I think for all of my family we had done much processing when my Auntie first made her “living will” four years ago. She and I were close, and she had asked me to explain her decision to my Mum. I remember holding so many perspectives – the compassion for my Auntie, her condition and her future demise; the empathy for my Mum, her not knowing how she felt about her sister deliberately taking her own life – a gift from God; and then for me, working with my own position as a Buddhist.

On one hand, without a belief in a divine creator, there is no giver of a gift to “offend” by taking one’s own life. The Buddhist framework works with suffering as the path – and I could only imagine my Auntie’s suffering. As her niece, I wanted my Auntie’s suffering to be alleviated. In her eyes that could only come from choosing to exit her physical existence. In the Buddhist view, extinction of suffering cannot be attained that way – experiencing suffering is the only way to transcend it…or we simply continue to carry it in our consciousness.

Working this all through in my mind has been a profound experience. Not condemning nor condoning my Auntie’s actions – it was her choice and I respect her agency and autonomy. I also understand my Mum’s NOT understanding – but she too supported her “baby sister” in every way she could. Personally, I appreciate how the law of karma comes in to play – we don’t have to make any kind of judgement of other’s behaviour: we simply need to look at our own deeds; our thoughts, our actions.

I cannot say how I would act in my Auntie’s situation. The pain, the frustration of not being in a healthy body, the aloneness in it all. Like her, I have chosen a child-free life – in the years to come, I do not know who will be around me as a become sick, grow old and eventually begin the process of dying. Bearing suffering is one thing, to do it alone brings another layer.

At the point, with healthy mind and body, I hope I will be able to hold the pain and work with the suffering consistent with “the only way is through” view. I don’t know. All I can say is what I hope I have the courage to do.

I even question if part of my compassion and understanding toward my Auntie’s decision is my own suffering of seeing her in pain. Monday 23rd did bring relief – knowing she was no longer in physical pain, and knowing I could begin a grieving process that has been on and off for 5 years now.

There is no right and wrong in this. And many questions remain unanswered – perhaps that is clear to you as you read this? What it has done is bring reflection at what is already a time for pausing and looking inward. My Auntie’s photo is on my shrine in preparation for the sukhavarti ceremony on the 49th day after her death. And at this time, I have connected to my Ngondro practice at a deeper level, especially in the consideration of the Four reminders and “the preciousness of this human birth”, and “the impermanence of this life”.

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