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Terminal illness

Rays of hope — 2

Dr. Alok Pandey


Death means much more than the cessation of bodily life. It raises several issues within the mind of the person who faces it. It challenges our established world-view and touches upon some deeply painful knots within us. This part has been written mainly with a view to the common questions that those in the grips of a difficult, 'incurable', terminal illness often ask. The questions have been culled from the actual reaction from real people. They may not cover all issues but are meant to touch upon some of the main issues that spring up in our encounter with death.

1. Can I live long enough to see my children settled in life? 

It is only natural to want to live long enough to see our children settled. We should try with whatever means are at hand, such as medication, our own will and faith, to try and prolong life. But we must not forget that none of us has the final say in the ways of destiny. So it is best to do what we can for ourselves and our children and leave the rest in God’s wise unseen hands. 

What we can do still for our children and their future is to write a will. We should also give them love and hope in life so that when we are no more around, they can feel strengthened by our love. Most of all we should pray for them, with an aspiration that their future may be good and bright and their life free from troubles and difficulties. If we do this with sincerity then even after we are gone, the vibrations of goodwill and care and the response of God’s Grace will continue to shelter and nurture them through ways and means we cannot comprehend at present. This is what we can do and should do. The rest is not in our hands and we should learn to accept with serenity the ways of fate that come our way. 

Remember the way you meet this difficult moment of crisis in your life will be a lifelong education for your children. If they see you break down and lose faith and courage; if they feel around you an atmosphere of depression and gloom they would react the same way towards life and develop a field of negativity around them which will pull them down in the face of every difficulty. Whereas if they see you face life and its difficulties with courage and faith they will not only respect you for that but also carry it as strength in their hearts when you are no longer there beside them. That will become your parting gift to them, a priceless gift no money can buy, a gift that will help them immensely in their future. 

2. Can you do something to help me live till my daughter is married off?

We always try to prolong life and it is right to do so. Together we shall try to see how far we can push the disease. We will try with medication and care, you can try with positive thoughts and faith. But we must remember that as with all things the final result does not lie in our hands. Yes, we will try our best but also learn to accept certain things calmly. Time does not wait for any of us. But while we may or may not be present physically in the future, we can still do something about it. Our mind and will can extend into the future and instead of filling it with apprehensions and fears, fill it with beautiful images. We can imagine that your daughter is getting married off in the best of circumstances, to a good man who will take care of her. We can also equip her with positive thoughts and energies so that she can face the future boldly with courage and confidence. We can pray to God to take care of her when we are no longer present and hand over the responsibility to God to whom everything already belongs. This will not only reduce our unwanted anxiety but will be a beautiful gift to your child whom you love.

3. How will my family survive when I die?

It is only natural for us to worry about our loved ones and feel responsible for them. This is largely because of the ego-sense and with it the sense of doing everything and being responsible for everything. At the same time we are acutely aware of our ignorance to see the future and yet want somehow to be able to change it. Animals do not worry in this way and yet they are provided for. Nature, the great mother, looks after all her children and she devises ways and means to take care of even the most helpless ones. Men and circumstances are but only instruments of her grand design. When needed, she sends the right resources and help. We are one such resource nature uses for taking care of those whom we regard as our family. But in reality, we are only trustees who have been instrumental in doing what nature and fate has decided. When we are not there, nature will find other means and instruments for whatever fate has in store for each one of us. The history of life is full of countless true stories where men survived even in the most impossible situations and even bounced back successfully; whereas when nature and fate decide otherwise then nothing can help, even the greatest resources available to us will fail. Nature takes care of even an ant: the smallest of her creations are not neglected by her.

What we can and should therefore do is equip our loved ones to take care of themselves when we have gone. And the best way to do this is to instil in them faith and courage, trust and confidence. If these things are present, especially faith and courage, then they can build up from scratch. But if these most important things are missing, then even a fortune is not sufficient and one loses it soon. So why worry what will happen when we are not there?  

4. I do not want to be a burden to my loved ones. I want to move out. But my family is not allowing me. 

It is a noble thought from your side not to be a burden to your loved ones. It is good that you have expressed this to them. But let them now take this decision. It is their privilege to look after you just as you had looked after them when they needed it. It is an act of love and we should respect it. Besides it will help them in the future. First of all, they will learn to love and care, a very important part of their education. Secondly, they will treasure the moments of togetherness when you are no more there by their side. If they are unable to care for you during this moment of your need, they may carry this as a burden with them for the rest of their lives. It is an intense moment for you and for your loved ones. So while your wish to spare them any trouble is good and legitimate so too is their wish to care for you at this hour equally right and legitimate. Let them do it if they want. It will help them in their future. 

5. I am fed up. Could you please help me die?

We should neither be afraid of death nor should we wish to die. Death will come at its own hour when the experiences of this life are complete. To cut short the thread of experiences abruptly by quitting the play suddenly creates a recoil in Nature and upsets the balance. A death-wish is a dark exit and it prolongs our passage through the dark fields of death much more. At least we can remember God while we are still in this body. We can also feel the love and care of friends, reach out to them, express our gratitude and give them our love while we are here. We can also learn and progress, read and listen to beautiful things that will help us in our soul’s growth and further journey. All this is possible only while in the body. So instead of focusing on our suffering which no doubt is present, we need to focus on our progress through this difficult crisis. Death is not an escape from difficulties and challenges. It is only the end of one particular way of approaching the problem. The enigma of life returns in a different way until we have found the radical remedy. That remedy is not death but divinity. So make the best use of every breath to inch towards that. If we try to escape through death then the problems of this life will return again and all the painfully gathered experience of this life will be lost due to renewed effort in the same direction. So let us complete this chapter and leave nothing unfinished for a later date, unfinished in terms of learning what we need to learn in this life through all its bitter-sweet experiences.

6. I was told that my disease had been cured. Why did it come back? 

Just like the illness, the causes of recurrences are many. Cure generally means freedom from symptoms for a certain period of time. But that does not mean that the possibility of an illness has disappeared from our body. The possibility is always there and it can come up any time. But most of all, it comes through a lowering of immunity in fighting out an illness. The immunity gets lowered due to physical causes such as unhealthy lifestyle, poor sleep and bad diet, as well as psychological causes such as depression and fear. That is why we need to work upon our psychological side as well as the physical and change our lifestyle and attitudes to prevent the possibility of recurrence. Still, sometimes recurrences may occur for reasons we have not yet understood. But that does not mean we should fill up the gaps in our knowledge by attributing it to God and punishment, etc. That only makes things worse.

7. Is there a chance that I may get cured?

None of us, including the doctors, can predict the future. We only make reasonable guesses. But life is full of unpredictable things and a healthy optimism is always a good thing to keep. However, what is more important is not whether or when you will get cured but that you keep this moment before you, this hour, this day as fresh as any other day. How do you want to spend it? Worrying about the future, feeling depressed about the past, or filling the present moment with as many beautiful things as you can? There is still so much you can do. Immortalising the work of an hour or day spent in pursuit of Truth and Light is worth years passed uselessly doing the routine mechanical things of our everyday living. So wake up and start going about life as if you had this one moment which you would wish to fill with eternity. That will also create the best conditions for your cure if that is possible as well as make your life worthwhile if this is your destiny. It is said by all mystics that in three days one can realise God! You have surely many more days to try many things.

8. Will I get cured if I get treated somewhere else?

As far as allopathy is concerned, we have a standardised treatment and it is unlikely that there is going to be much difference of opinion with regard to the disease. But you can always try alternate systems in addition to whatever we are doing here. You may also take a second opinion if you like. But trying too many things and too many places seldom helps. It may be instead better to leave the medical side in the hands of a doctor you trust and work upon the psychological and spiritual side at your end. This way, you create the right circumstances for the best possible outcome.

It is hard to speak about the future course of a disease without resorting to generalisations. But nature, life and fate are full of surprises, as we all know. So let us not be too unduly anxious of tomorrow and entrusting our future course in God’s hands, let us spend our time more usefully. In fact, if we spend our present in a fruitful and positive way we are more likely to have a better and smoother future course. Instead of worrying let us start working for a better tomorrow.

9. What should I do to get cured?

While no one can guarantee a cure, yet there is something we all can do to make our chances better and improve the quality of our life while still we are here. 

First and foremost, we should try to get rid of fear and worry. By constant worry and fear, we only bring death closer and reduce the quality of our life. Instead we should spend our time thinking of God and giving love to all who care for us and are there to help us. We can also learn some methods of meditation and try practising them. We can spend our time listening to beautiful things and reading spiritual and uplifting literature. If nothing else, then we should at least try to divert our mind from thinking all the time about illness towards something that would make us happy such as good music, a humorous film, an absorbing work to our liking, or even cultivating a hobby for something that you always wanted to do but could not. All this creates a positive atmosphere within and around you and helps the healing process and adds quality to life. As to the rest, listen to your doctor and follow his advice with trust instead of confusing the mind with different opinions. Trust your body in the doctor’s hands, your life and soul in God’s hands and be happy and free. And if you can, entrust your body too in God’s Hands and pray that He works through your physician as an instrument of God. 

10. What should I do to get my life extended?

Our life is measured not in terms of the number of years or quantity but in terms of the quality of our life. The quantity of life, that is the number of years we live, may not be always in our hands but its quality depends upon how we use our time, on our attitudes and that is always in our hands. So let us add life to the days we live rather than add days to our life. 

11. How long will I live?

Life and death are not in man’s hands and cannot be predicted with any certainty. It is no use pondering over this question and filling the mind with fears and worries. Fear kills us a hundred times before death, whereas courage makes even death merely one scene in the great unending drama of life. Besides, life does not finish with death. It only changes its form and mode of functioning. Having shed the gross attire of our physical body, our existence continues in a subtle body where we are conscious of our self and the world in another way and through subtle senses. Just as we are aware of another self and another kind of time and space in dreams so too after death we become aware of other worlds and other domains in which we continue to live until the moment of our return. On return, the soul once again assumes this gross earthly dress and trapped by the gross senses forgets the experiences of the subtle worlds it had during the to and fro transition. This is also similar to our forgetting what happened during dreams unless we have consciously cultivated or been gifted to remember what transpired in them.

Death is not an end of life but only a room in the huge and vast mansion of life itself, a room through which we pass to get rid of old things, a dark storehouse,  so to speak. Or a room where we go to take off our old worn-out clothes, take a good bath and then come out putting on a new dress and taking on a new adventure of life.

12. I feel better now. Am I getting cured?

It is good that you feel better. It means that as of this day the illness is not able to have an upper hand. But it is not easy to retain this state always. There are ups and downs in the course of a disease. Neither should we feel disheartened when things are not going our way and the symptoms are getting worse nor feel too elated and over-hopeful if things are looking better or there is a sudden improvement in our condition. We should be grateful if things are looking better and utilise this time when we feel better in a useful way and uplift ourselves spiritually.

Remember at all times:

1. The illness is not the result of your sins or a punishment by God but one season of life through which we must pass on our onward journey.

2. We may not always be able to prolong life indefinitely but we can always learn to die peacefully and exit gracefully.

3. Those whom we loved and cared and still do are also God’s children and He is the first and the last caretaker of all. We are but trustees and instruments. After we are gone, He will organise their life through His own means. You need not worry about that.

4. Hand over your responsibilities, your own and of those you love, your life and your death into God’s hands and learn to surrender to His Will. It will bring peace and felicity.

5. You cannot change your past nor can you predict the future. But the present moment is in your hands. Make your choice whether you want to fill the present moment with fear and anxiety or instead with trust and confidence in God. As you fill your today so will the future take shape tomorrow.

6. Do good while still there is time. Send goodwill and gratitude to all. Give love and cultivate compassion.

7. This day is with you. What would you like to do if you knew this were the last day or the last moment of your life? Think of relatives, feel guilty and ashamed, cry and complain or else fill this moment with the spirit of surrender, a complete and absolute surrender to God and His Will, whatever it be.

8. It is no use worrying too much about the disease and its course, etc. None can predict it, leave it in your doctor’s hands and pray to God that He inspires the doctors to do what needs to be done. The less you think and worry about your disease the better it is for the final outcome.

9. Learn to separate your ‘true self’, the soul, from your body. The body is the house or the dress, not the householder or the wearer of the garment. Practise this inner detachment and remind yourself “I am not this body’, ‘I am the soul, eternal and free, a child of God who comes from Him and will go back to Him.’

10. Try some simple meditation by focusing your mind on God’s name and His qualities, such as Love and Light. Try to make the remembrance of His name as constant as you can. This will create the best conditions for your life as well as for your passing beyond.

11. Life and existence does not end with death. Death is simply a passage and not an end. It is a passage towards a new dawn and a greater life.

12. Remember, God loves you regardless of your state of mind or body, regardless of sins and errors. He loves you and will continue to love you. He never abandons anyone, in life or in death. In life we fail to see him since we are too preoccupied with ourselves and our ego. But when we have passed through the tunnel of death we see Him face to face. Rejoice with this thought that the Master is waiting for you at the other side, to receive you in His arms.

Dr. Alok Pandey, an editor of NAMAH and member of SAIIIHR, is a doctor practising at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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