by Janice Stensrude
TALKING WITH CHRISTINE LONGAKER
Christine Longaker lost her husband to leukemia when she was only 25. The pair had had two years to confront and reconcile the inevitable. After her husband’s death, Longaker happened upon the Buddhist view of death, which ultimately led to her embracing Buddhist philosophy and founding the hospice movement in California.
Her book (still in print and now a classic in its field), is Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide To The Emotional and Spiritual Care Of The Dying
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While Longaker discovered a dearth of written material on grieving, she says she did come across “one clue in a book” that helped her finish her mourning process. “It said to recall the memories that have a strong emotional charge for you, only this time mentally finish them the way you wish you could have,” she explains. “When I first read that, I thought, That’ll take me another lifetime to finish all those memories and release all those emotions. But I decided to just try it, and I started, one by one, going back to memories just like that, and found that when I mentally did or said what I wish I could have, then it did help me to let go of any blame and realize that also I had something to learn.”
Longaker denies that this process is the same as re-living a bad situation, but is rather completing it. She explains, “I was completing it in the way that I would have wished, and I realized it was also helping me to finish my bereavement, because I was mentally rehearsing how I would do it the next time. When we have a bad feeling about the past we kind of get trapped in it. We just keep thinking about it, and it feels like it’s unresolvable. So by finishing it mentally the way I would have liked, part of me was able to let go of it and just accept it for what it was in that time, as something I needed to learn from; but also, as I was rehearsing for the future, I let go of my guilt and realized that I regret that, but now I’m going to do something about it. . . . We have to accept that we’re all human, we all have limitations.”
“I often counsel people who are going through bereavement and are stuck feeling with a lot of guilt, and I ask them to sometimes imagine that they were the one who died first. For example, if it was a couple, and I say, ‘If you were the one who had died and you’re looking back on your spouse now who’s feeling a lot of guilt about things that they did or they failed to do, what would you want to communicate to them?’ And generally when people exchange places like that, they realize that their loved one wouldn’t be angry at them, would actually understand, and would want to communicate to them to please feel free of this guilt and carry on with their lives and enjoy their lives. So often people get a sense that their guilt isn’t necessary, that their loved one loves them and accepts them with all their human mistakes, and that even if they’d been the one to die first, maybe their spouse would have done the same thing — you know, made mistakes, not been perfect.”
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In the following interview transcription, the questions are in red, and Christine Longaker’s responses are in black.
Along the same vein, with death as a continuation of how we are right now, which is kind of scary, particularly for people who aren’t preparing for it—and a lot of people, too, feel like that, you know, if they could just die now, their troubles would be over. But it sounds like … the same place.
Sort of the good news and the bad news.
Right. But what struck me about that is, so what about people who are mentally ill? The man that goes out there and maybe he goes out killing 15 people when a bad chemical has hold of his brain, and what happens to these people when they’re passing over?
. . . the teachings say that what creates a result, whether it’s a result of happiness or further suffering, depends not just on our action, but on our motivation. And so if we have all of our faculties intact and we do something that harms others, then we will have a resulting consequence down the line, whether it’s in this life or after death, for ourselves. If we harm someone and we don’t even know it, there’s not so much consequence for that. So the Buddhist teachings say how very, very important it is to, in a sense, train our minds so that we don’t judge others. Because if we could really see all of the sort of experiences and history and suffering and possibly unbearable pain that brought a person to such a destructive act, we would have compassion for them, and that on smaller levels we all function out of ignorance, as well, when we harm others. Do you know what I mean? If we really understood the results of things that we said or did or thought towards others and we understood everybody we meet is like ourself, then …
Yeah, I think that when we hurt people we dehumanize them before we do it.
They become objects and so it’s okay to hurt objects.
That’s right. But maybe we don’t go out on a shooting spree and kill people, but in a smaller way, because of our ignorance, we might think hurtful thoughts, we might say hurtful things or do hurtful things to people. And so in that way also it’s not fair to judge another because we have a similar ignorance or unawareness that a person who’s mentally ill has.
A friend of mine has elderly parents who live in a nice residential area, and their neighbors committed suicide because they ran out of money. Everyone was shocked because they didn’t know that they were running out of money or that there was any problem of any sort. They just seemed like perfectly happy people. So it appeared to be a really practical approach to a practical problem. What does this kind of suicide do to our karma, if it’s a practical thing to do?
Well I think it’s a little bit similar to the last answer I gave, that in one way people’s motivation when they take their life is to relieve a suffering that to them feels unbearable and unanswerable in any other way. Now when we look on the outside to them, we think, but there were other answers. And so the Buddhist teachings say it’s very important to try to find the help and the support and to ask for what we need in this life. Because the suffering we are trying to escape may not finish at death. You know our mind, our mental continuum continues after death, and we can either be free or we can be further trapped in the same problems that happened before our death. . . . Someone who takes their life from their point of view didn’t feel that there was any other way out, and so, if we really reflect on how much pain they must have been in, again we should extend compassion to them rather than judging them, and try to practice spiritually for them and help to heal whatever they might be going through now, to purify whatever they’re going through.
Of course that always makes a lot of people around them, too, feel guilty, that if I’d known I could have done something.
Well that’s the important thing for survivors to realize is that sometimes people don’t let us in. They don’t tell us that they’re in trouble or they don’t tell us how bad the trouble is, and sometimes we’re just too overwhelmed maybe to really pay attention or to really understand what they need. So that’s one perspective that I appreciate very much about Buddhist teachings, because they say, if our consciousness continues after death, if our spiritual essence goes on—and it could be in a state of great happiness if we’ve died well, it could be in a state of further suffering or confusion. Then when we have a loved one, rather than focusing on our guilt or our reactions—even those are normal—we try to really reflect and extend compassion to the person who died, extend our spiritual practice on their behalf, whether it’s meditation or prayer or whatever we can do, and think, maybe I couldn’t reach them or give them my support before they died, but certainly after they’ve died, wherever they are I can give my support now in a very meaningful way. So to focus on what they need, rather than our own reactions to the event.
Yeah, that makes perfectly good sense. The kind of sense that people can’t always understand. Well I think you’ve kind of answered this, but it’s a multi-level question and it’s kind of complicated, I think. How does finding meaning in death give meaning to life?
Well even in both the Buddhist monastic tradition and even the training of lay people, as well as in many of the Christian contemplative orders, there was always a reflection, a daily reflection to remember death, to remember that it’s very certain that we will die, but it’s uncertain how we will die or when we will die. So remembering death is to reflect daily that this could be the last day of my life. These acts and these words and even these thoughts could be my last acts in this life. And at first, when we reflect on the fact that we could die at any time, we might feel frightened, we might feel depressed, but that just shows that we need to work through something; we need to face and understand death more and more fully. So by trying to really see and understand this essential spiritual nature, you know, by finding a spiritual practice or meditation that we can do to discover this innermost essence . . . our fear of death will diminish because we realize that the body dies as well as the ego. Our personality, our sense of self will die, and yet we’re training ourselves throughout life to get in touch with our deathless essence, this clarity, this fundamental compassion and goodness which is beyond life and beyond death. So when we have more and more confidence in that, our fear of death starts to diminish. And there’s a natural sadness that comes as we start to acknowledge our death, because we think about losing our loved ones and having to give up the things that we’re attached to in this life. And yet in the Buddhist training we say, by reflecting everyday on impermanence, that everything is impermanent and changing, we become more and more free. Because right now as we keep trying to imagine that our loved ones and our health and our life situations are always permanent and going to last forever, we get disappointed continuously. We get more and more frustrated. Our hearts get more and more closed as we go through the different griefs and frustrations and angers and disappointments of life. And so by reflecting all the time that everything is impermanent, we hold things a little bit more lightly. We know that everything that we cherish or grasp after in this life is temporary and it doesn’t ultimately belong to us. And it reminds us to not look into outer things of this world for happiness but to turn our mind inward and find the source of deep peace and happiness that’s already within us.
You know you talk about developing a good heart, and something that I have perceived happening in the world is a real quest for goodness . . . a need for goodness, and to me it appears to be stronger than it has been in the past, that we’re at some point in this universal evolution where this response to people’s hankering for goodness is coming about. Do you see that happening?
I do. I see it happening in both North America, as well as when I travel and teach in Europe. And I think part of that is because we have a natural feeling that, for what human kindness is. We’re so naturally moved and inspired when we hear stories about people who go through amazing or unbelievable kinds of suffering and yet in some way they still transcend it, they still give it meaning. I was reflecting on that recently when I was thinking about Christopher Reeve and how he’s responded to his spinal cord injury. And I thought how many people would just feel like they were just a victim of their circumstances and that all meaning has disappeared from their life. And yet each of us has this goodness, this inherent essence that’s touched when we hear a story like that. And we realize there is a part of our nature that knows how to transcend suffering, that knows how to feel compassion for others who are suffering. And we know that when we are in touch with that we feel well. We don’t just feel well for the other person, but even with ourselves when we are in touch with our compassion; we feel well, we feel lighter, we feel more at ease as we move about in our world. So as people start to get in touch with teachings about this fundamental goodness of their being and methods for how they can train their mind and heart in compassion, they realize that it’s very nurturing for themselves. And in this day and age we feel very disconnected often from each other and even from ourselves, from our own heart and mind. And so I think people are very hungry to feel connected once again, and compassion is certainly a way of doing that.
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Another thing I was just reflecting on . . . is your image of the man meeting the bear three times in his life. [I think this might have been an earlier reference to the character in the film Legends of the Fall, who battled the same bear three times during his lifetime, the last time as an old man, and both he and the bear died in that final conflict.] And that’s another interesting thing that the Buddhist teachings say: that we keep getting signs. We keep getting warnings that it’s time to face death. You see that everything we do from here on out is a gift because we don’t know how or when we’re going to die. And some of those signs are the first gray hairs, the first wrinkles, you know, the first surgery. And when people who are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, over the years many of them would ask the Tibetan Master that I was with, how long should I keep trying to heal and how do I know when to give up and start preparing for my death? And the Buddhist Master said, You mean you’re not prepared for death? I mean, didn’t getting diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness kind of give you a warning? But they consider that that’s our entire life’s task: to prepare spiritually for death. So it’s not something special we do at the end of life, but we use the little reminders. Like you said, it was sort of a wakeup call when people in your life died . . . that that’s the time to make a change. So to use even loss and death and suffering as a reminder to get our values in order and to live more meaningfully and to change or heal whatever we need to do in our lives, so that if we were to die at any time, we wouldn’t have any regrets.
What is your hope for your book?
I realize that I was reflecting on this whole movement of death and dying and how in 1969 Elizabeth Kubler Ross published her landmark work on death and dying and how for now almost 30 years we’ve had the subject of death and dying out in the open, we have been talking about it, and yet I am so aware that there’s still so much fear of death, so much misunderstanding about how we die and how we can care for people who die in such a wonderful way through the efforts of the hospice movement.
You know, dying is a very expensive proposition. And I know very few single women of my age who have any health insurance. And I think, speaking for myself, I overcame the fear of death probably 15 years ago when I started thinking differently about it and thinking more spiritually. But I have not lost the fear of illness, because the first day I don’t go to work is the first day I have no income. So that’s what’s frightening for a lot of people I know—not death, but the illness and what will happen to them and their family. It’s like if something happened to me today, and the doctors came in and said we can save her life; it’s only going to cost you ten million dollars. My family would run in and put up all this money, and maybe I would die anyway, and they would be absolutely financially ruined, and not having accomplished anything from it. So I think that’s what people fear, the illness, not the death.
Well, yes, and that’s what— that’s what my real vision is. My wish for my book and for the work of the Spiritual Care for Living and Dying Program is that we now find ways to educate ourselves in our American culture how to understand death in a more positive way, to recognize the universality of death and the importance of good health care and good hospice care so that we don’t have so much fear and talk about assisted suicide. And that we really respond to people who are suffering with compassion and with support, rather than with fear and abandonment. So my dream is that this kind of education gets brought into the way we train doctors and nurses and hospital administrators and social workers and funeral directors, so that all of the people who work in this field, including the congressmen and health insurance representatives who set the rules, start to appreciate that death doesn’t escape anyone, that even their loved ones will die, and the same kind of care that they would wish for their loved ones, we need to make available now. . . . In the first pilot study that the government made of the efficacy of hospice care, they found that it was incredibly cost effective. It’s much, much more cost effective than normal acute hospitalization or long-term convalescent hospital care where every effort is made to keep the person alive. Allowing death to happen naturally saves money in the end. When everyone is not afraid to face it and not afraid to grieve and not afraid to tell the patient that they’re dying and ask them how we can relieve your symptoms and make this time for you, and less of a burden for your family. But when there’s an intense fear of death, no one will admit the truth and the person approaches death with more and more intensive medical care and more and more complications, and in the end, prolonging their suffering.
At present (2011), Christine Longaker is the Education Director, Rigpa’s Spiritual Care Education Program. She is the former director and staff trainer of the Hospice of Santa Cruz County in California and has provided hospice trainings internationally since 1978. She has been instrumental in developing Rigpa’s Spiritual Care Education Program and serves as its International Education Director. She co-designed and serves as faculty for Naropa University’s accredited training in “Contemplative End-of-Life Care,” and is author of Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying, which is translated into nine languages.