by SS Amar Atma Singh Khalsa, Phoenix AZ
Recently, I embarked on a practice exploring how often death and its associated message came up in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. As I read through our beloved Guru Ji, I found there were often too many references to count and noticed not a page unfolded without this reflection.
I’ve always found it interesting that in the Punjabi community we greet each other with Sat Siri Akal (Great Undying Truth). I also love that part of our morning sadhana where this mantra is a focus. However, how often do we really reflect upon our death and the death of our loved ones?
Working as a chaplain in a major hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, has challenged me in this way. Death is ever-present in the hospital. Suffering, mortality, and morbidity express themselves in vast quantities there.
I’ve seen humanity at its most basic and perhaps its purest when death is present. Our political, economic, and racial differences fall away when we are face to face with our impermanence. Death does not discriminate.
The hospital has been my training ground for deepening my ministry. We often call hospital chaplaincy “the trenches” and I like to call it “one of the front lines of humanity.” The human spirit is so tangible and miracles are so readily accessible. It has deepened my relationship with Guru Ji in such profound ways that I don’t have words to express them.
Being around death and dying has exposed me to something very important, which is the need to bring it to the forefront in our lives.
Death is dark. It’s unknown. It’s scary and it’s morbid. We have religions, philosophies, poetry, and great works of art and science exploring the vast dimensions of life beyond this life. We’ve had cultures for millennia exploring the secret elixirs to living forever, or anti-aging innovations to effect or change nature’s most basic rule.
Death as a Teacher
However, Sikhi teaches us that death is a teacher. Death is a teacher because it teaches us how to live. Putting this as a focus of our daily practice will transform and exalt our spirituality.
As time unfolded with this ever-present and daily relationship to it, I was beginning to change. I needed more as a practice.
In my years of training to become a Sikh Dharma Minister, I explored Pran Sutras and studied the Siri Singh Sahib’s lecture about death and dying, what he called “crossing the hour.” I read Kirtan Sohila each night and participate at funerals reading the full list of banis for the departed. I’ve chanted “Akal” in the support of the soul passing. However, there was still something more I needed to unveil this deep teacher. And then it hit me about the importance of advanced directives.
An “advanced directive” is the clinical phrase for your end-of-life care plan. It asks about who you want to be your decision-maker if you happen to be in a situation unable to make decisions for yourself. It asks the level of support you would want if you needed to be on a breathing machine or artificially fed. It asks if you would want all the life-saving procedures that come with resuscitation or to be a DNR, do not resuscitate.
In some directives, it asks how you would like to be remembered and what you would like for the ceremony for your funeral, such as burial or cremation. It asks if you would want to be an organ and tissue donor. It asks the very powerful questions and helps us face the reality of our mortality. It asks of us to explore with our loved ones our values and beliefs of how we would want to depart this world in very practical terms. It teaches us the value of our life and the preciousness of the moment.
While working in the hospital I experienced two sets of families in the ICU. In one group, grief was difficult for the majority of them. Death came suddenly, as often happens with someone with many chronic issues or hospitalizations. No matter how old, or how great the life, these families denied the inevitable. They didn’t plan for the days leading up, they didn’t converse about details associated with levels of care, and they didn’t value the time in-between. When death occurred for these families grief hit like a tidal wave. It was visceral and impactful. It was traumatic.
Traumatic grief became my specialty. I learned the value of my role and the depth of my heart during these times. I had such pain for these families and my chaplaincy deeply grew with them. I learned the art of presence and listening, and its effectiveness to build connection and offer healing. I learned the impact of trauma and its physiological ripple years later. As a student of Chinese Medicine and acupuncture, I knew the potential chronic conditions that would come from acute emotional pain. I did my best to alleviate the years of suffering that may follow.
The second set of families was far rarer. These families experienced death quite differently and grieved very differently as well. These were the ones who had a plan, and talked to each other intimately about what’s important about life, and about what mattered most in the ending days.
These families had clarity. They were sad, but their sadness was not debilitating. It was not traumatic. They had a peacefulness about them as the complexities of end-of-life decision making was not burdensome for them. They knew what their loved one wanted and knew what they didn’t. The conversations with these families were quite different. It was full of stories and memories. There was laughter in the room and sometimes a sense of relief.
Seeing the Path
End-of-life conversations are very difficult when a person is not facing an end-of-life situation. Add in the actuality of life and death situations and the layers of challenges become overwhelming.
My job was to hold the bird’s eye view. I often worked in palliative care, a subspecialty in medicine focusing on goals of care for patients and families experiencing diagnoses that are based on a terminal illness. These conversations were focused on helping families see the path through the forest.
My goal was to listen and clarify within a conversation the values and beliefs I heard them sharing. It was often underneath their words and in the emotional and spiritual terrain. It’s not a language that we are accustomed to in our culture. And so having a listening ear, with effective questions became the skill set I needed to be helpful for families- especially those who had not prepared for circumstances such as end-of-life care.
There is no right way or wrong way to have end-of-life conversations with your families. The idea behind this is to explore your values and beliefs. I find the Five Wishes document to be exceptional for this. It serves as a legal document but also facilitates kindly and compassionately the exploration of end-of-life care decisions.
Clarity gives empowerment and this choice that takes the debility out of the grief when our loved ones pass. It allows us to be present with them and perhaps even celebrate a glorious life lived. It teaches us how to love deeper.
The Spirituality of Death
Filling out an advanced directive and having a conversation around end-of-life care planning explores the spirituality of death. It gives this scary monster that we all fear a tangible and effective form to move with it. It brings us closer to ourselves and to those most important to our life.
I pray we all live beautiful and full lives. I pray we all live with functionality and mental clarity up until the day we die and die peacefully in our sleep. I pray we have these conversations to spare our loved ones having to decide it for us when we may not be able to. I pray this practice unveils deeper dimensions of your spirit and illuminates a vast peace that can spread through this world. My prayer is with all of you.
About the Author
SS Amar Atma Singh Khalsa is an ordained Sikh Dharma Minister. He is a KRI-certified Lead Trainer for Teacher Training courses. He’s an Acupuncturist, Reiki Master, and Numerologist, and works as a chaplain serving the spiritual needs of those in the hospital settings.