Stories of Life and Death
November 2, 2022
by Laurie Hopman
We teach our children ‘the facts of life’—when do we learn ‘the facts of death?’
Over the course of my life, death became a companion to life. Like most people I had experiences of illness in myself or in family members.
As a physician, I became party to those intense times in many, many people’s lives. I worked hard to fend off sickness and death. This life [and my vocation as a doctor] is my dharma practice, and I have had the best job in the world, filled with joy and opportunity. The ‘facts of death’ became familiar with repetition.
I discussed with my patients their wishes for end of life care, and I recall smiling inside when a man told me he didn’t need anything in particular because he had decided that he was going to die in his sleep. I have seen people die in agony, I have seen people die unaware, I have seen people die peacefully and surrounded by love.
I thought about all those stories, and what I know from over 30 years of experience working as a physician, but the story that feels most mine to tell is my own. Though I saw impermanence so frequently, I still grew comfortable in my expectations, so accustomed to my own chronic illness and to all the suffering I saw every day that I relegated my [own] death to ‘later.’
Then suddenly, it was me who was dying right now. It was 2017. I was attending a retreat at the Nyingma Institute, as I had done once or twice a year since the 1990s. Suddenly I was ill, and in less than a day, with no warning came overwhelming abdominal pain, vomiting and blood. In the middle of the night I had an ambulance ride to the hospital, and my doctor-brain knew exactly what was happening to me as an ulcer ruptured and blood and digestive juices poured into my abdominal cavity. No drugs relieved the pain. With my condition deteriorating rapidly, I knew I might or might not survive.
At that moment I received the most precious gift I can imagine. I had a precious dharma friend, who took my wallet, clothes and phone, and held me and chanted quietly with me amidst all the beeps and noises of the ER. She helped me move my mind that was crazed with pain and chant the Vajra Guru mantra, and hold my concentration there when there was nothing else left that I could do. She was prepared, and she gave me support. In ways I hadn’t always clearly planned, I had prepared and practiced. I couldn’t have been in a better place to experience this crisis.
By sharing what I know, using my medical knowledge and practicing compassion, as well as my personal experiences, I hope to ease suffering, reduce pain and fear, help people live longer and more satisfying lives, open up space for joy and love. Planning for death and knowing what to expect helps alleviates fear and gives us support. And it is only part of the story, for practice — learning how to relax deeply, how to work with mind, emotions, body, and senses — builds the habits of mind we can rely on. I treasure teachings from the Buddhist tradition to prepare for the time of death because I know the value of that support, and how much I need it.
After all, ’the facts of death’ are as much part of living as ‘the facts of life,’ and they can help us see what is truly precious about each moment, as well as to face ourselves with less fear, more peace, and a deep abiding gratitude and love for the universe and opportunities we have before us.
Healing, Dying, and Awareness
Dates: November 18-20th, 2022
Instructors: Laurie Hopman, MD, Olivia Hurd, Anita McNulty, Lama Palzang, and Pema Gellek