An article Maneesha wrote on euthanasia for the New York based magazine, ‘Creations.’
Some years ago my interest in meditation led me to work with those facing death. Happening to be in The Netherlands, it so happened that I had the opportunity to be present at a death through euthanasia.
A mutual friend was the contact for my meeting Amrita. A lively Dutch woman in her late fifties, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months earlier, and was told that her situation was irreversible. When I visited her in her home in Gronningen, she was already so debilitated that any activity was painful: she spent most of her time confined to bed.
During our sessions together we looked at what she might do to prepare for her impending death and the issue of leaving her children. As I was soon to leave Holland for some months, our time together was necessarily brief; we quickly became close. We had some sessions together, and I also saw her close friend, and her two children separately, for informal sessions.
When I said goodbye a few days later, I felt certain this was goodbye, and lovingly wished Amrita ‘bon voyage.’ As it happened, four months later she was still alive – but only just. Serendipitously, on the day I returned to Holland her daughter called to say her mother’s pain had become unbearable; with her doctor’s agreement she was to undergo euthanasia the following evening. Amrito wanted her to ask me: Would I assist her through the process?
I was immensely touched by Amrita’s invitation, and arrived at her home on the afternoon of the appointed evening. Through listening to her it was obvious she was ready to die. She and her family had spent the past weeks cleaning up any ‘unfinished business’, and she was leaving them without any regrets. She had been meditating regularly and listening to an audiotape I had made of a guided meditation – a kind of rehearsal for letting go into death.[See (what is now a CD) ‘In Transition’*]
At one point in our conversation she turned to gaze out of the window. It was springtime, and a nearby tree was covered in green buds. “Maneesha, I have so much gratitude towards life, “she said.”I have done so much!”
She talked of her travels, of friends and lovers, of how her spiritual journey had transformed her life and what she was experiencing now. Smiling, she added, “You know, I feel I am leaving with a light inside.”
I asked her what songs she would like sung at the celebration service for her, and together we sang a few lines of her favourites. Her voice was thin as she struggled to repeat the words in tune with the familiar melodies. But her eyes were alight and soft with love. We discussed with her children how she would like her last few moments to be. Her son and daughter, both in their thirties, were only too happy to go along with what their mother wanted.
I left the family for their last hours together and returned to their house that evening. As planned, Amrita had already said goodbye to her son and daughter, who were now to wait for the doctor while I went to her bedroom. Sitting by her side, I reminded Amrita that it was not too late to change her mind, and that she could do so at any point during the process. “No,” I am ready,” she said quietly, and gently took my hand in hers. As we had agreed earlier, we closed our eyes to meditate together for the last time in her life. Twenty minutes later, her son and daughter quietly entered with the doctor. Amrita opened her eyes briefly and looked at them wordlessly before resuming her meditation.
The children sat down on the other side of the bed from me, while the family dog – clearly following his usual routine – clambered quietly up onto the bed and lay there curled up at Amrita’s feet. Amrita’s room was illumined by soft candlelight, while her favourite meditation music played in the background. Jan, the young doctor, smiled a ‘hello’ to me, then asked me if we were ready. I looked to Amrita and reminded her of what she had requested – that when she was ready for the injection she would indicate it by silently raising a finger so that she could continue to meditate uninterrupted. Within a minute or two she gave the signal. At the same time she slowly withdrew her hand from mine. I loved that simple gesture; there was such dignity and integrity in it.
Jan gently began to inject Amrita with a drug that would cause her heart to stop. I talked quietly talking to her, encouraging her to continue to relax and let go. Soon her breathing indicated that she was very deeply unconscious. The four of us were watching her face closely, so we all saw what happened next: Amrita began to laugh! Looking at each other in amazement, the four of us began to laugh too. How could we not? If she was finding the whole scene hilarious, then…!
By and by her laughter subsided and it was clear that she was moving into another level of unconsciousness. I continued to talk to her as I watched the pulse on her neck. It began to falter, until finally it stopped altogether. Amrita was clinically ‘dead.’ Still I kept talking, telling her that her body was now dead, that she was not the body but consciousness; that now she was free to move into the new. All four of us (plus dog!), remained with her for several more hours and, as we parted company, Jan commented that Amrita’s dying had been the most beautiful death he had ever experienced. I was touched by his openness, his sensitivity and gratitude.
In spite of having only a few hours’ sleep, when I woke, I felt exuberant, and found myself singing even before I was out of my bed. I sang my way to the bathroom, sang in the shower, and sang as I dressed. I do like singing to myself sometimes, but this was different.
Amrita seemed to be around me: dancing, laughing … free! She gave me one of the most profound lessons in dying.
If I can die with something of her grace and gratitude I shall consider myself immensely blessed.
*In Transition has been superseded by Osho Bardo.