Community and mutual support

Editor’s note: In this guest post, Dr. Tushar Mehta writes about how spirituality and connection to a community makes a huge difference, and how people can evolve even at a late age.

“Parasparopagraho Jivanam” All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence

My grandfather passed away 2 days ago, and we just had the funeral today. He was 87 years old, and had deteriorated significantly since he was stuck by a car as he was crossing a road a few years back. This weakened an otherwise vigorous man, and eventually his age caught up to him. There is sadness involved when a family member dies, but there is also an uplifting story in this, and a light.

My grandfather had a hard life from childhood, and the family (my grand mother, mom, uncles and aunts), did go through many hard times. He was a very honest person, but sometimes difficult person often quite stern in demeanor. As family we all gave him due respect and love, but we were not as close to him in a personal and affectionate sort of way.

However, over the last year I saw him change so much. Despite his progressive weakness, he became someone who laughed and smiled so easily and often, which was rare in the past. He became very spiritual in a natural and wholesome way. He spoke of his mortality with ease and confidence, saying that he knew he would not live long this year, and all that mattered was for his soul to grow more mature.

My brother and I spent lots of time with him over the past couple of years, knowing that the inevitable was coming closer. During that time we developed a better friendship as he evolved into someone who became warm and glowing. I would often massage his arthritic neck and back and he much enjoyed this.

Over the last couple of weeks my grandfather did suffer many pains and discomforts of his dying body, but he maintained a spiritual focus, and would listen to and recite mantras so much. In typical Jain fashion he decided that he would die on his own terms and made a decision to stop all medications, food, and eventually even water. This was five days before his death, and is a decision and an act that Jains call Santharo. The purpose is to the leave the body on one’s own terms, a spiritual flight to a new beginning, an austerity where a conscious person decides not to hinder the smallest leaf or insect in that process of consuming a morsel of food; total ahimsa.

However, it does not look that pretty when you are wearing a diaper. My bro and I did all the medical things we could to keep him comfortable. But most importantly my uncle and aunt were with him constantly, caring for his every need and pain as best they could. My aunt was up with him every night and slept by his side (slept very little actually). She was heroic. My grandmother was always there chanting the mantras which he requested and loved. There were also many other friends and family members who came frequently and stayed over many nights to keep him company. He seemed to suffer more at night and had trouble sleeping. When he died, there he was surrounded by many friends and family who were quietly singing mantras and keeping vigil, rubbing his shoulders, head, and feet. He looked very peaceful. This all happened at my uncle and aunt’s home where my grandfather lived.

Today we had a funeral and cremation. It was a bit somber, but afterwards we had a lots of good memories to share. There was a lot of laughter as well, and i think that we were quite at peace and thankful that he achieved such upliftment over the last year or two.

A good friend of mine sent me a wonderful quote from Rabindranath Tagore :

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.

I think that reflects the way that our family sees things. There is a mystery in life that we theorize about, but there is also a knowledge about a greater journey of the self in the universe, a desire to grow towards the ultimate, about compassion and an inner freedom. Also, there was such generosity and love from a golden web family and friends. I know we will all experience this, and I hope for us to have it sooner rather than later.

Dr. Tushar Mehta is a physician from Toronto, Canada. He is of Jain heritage and feels that this philosophy and spirituality has a great influence on his experience of life.

Paying your respects at the community prayer meeting

Post written by Suraj Shah.

Have you attended a prayer meeting recently to pay your respects when someone in the community has passed away?

When someone passes away, certain community groups have a set day or evening when members of the community can come together and attend a prayer meeting (sometimes referred to as a sadadi or prarthna sabha) to pay their respects.

During the prayer meeting, there is an opportunity to pay condolences to the close friends and relations of the deceased and then to sit in silence and listen to devotional singing.

Paying “dis-respect”  🙁

Sadly, not all those who attend this prayer meeting appreciate the importance of remaining silent. They will use it as an opportunity to catch up with distant family and old friends, and carry out conversations about cricket scores, business activity and boasting about their children’s graduation and getting a top city job.

I get the feeling that they feel forced having to attend the event, are bored, and are looking for anything that will be a distraction to their boredom.

All the while, the close family and friends of the deceased are grieving and confused, and deeply hurt that the other community members cannot respectfully maintain silence, even for just a couple of hours.

How would you feel if your father passed away and there was a lot of mindless chatter taking place in the hall? I’d certainly feel hurt and disrespected.

From dis-respect to introspect

Prayer meetings are in fact an excellent opportunity to introspect and enhance your compassion.

The next time you attend a community prayer meeting to pay your respects, here are seven tips to help you and those around you to remain respectful while taking some time for your own self-growth.

Tip #1: Remember the person who has passed away

When I was in my early 20s, one of my closest childhood friends died in a car accident. This was clearly a shock, but during the funeral I was remembering my friend’s caring nature and adventurous antics. I even laughed a little when the song “don’t worry, be happy” was playing in the crematorium – a fun reminder of his chilled-out nature.

If you personally knew the person who passed away, take the time to recollect the fondest memories you have of them.

  • How did they talk?
  • How did they act?
  • What was their main message in life?
  • What can you learn from their life and apply into yours?

Tip #2: Remember someone who has passed away that you were close to

When I attended my wife’s mother’s sister’s husband’s mother’s prayer meeting, I didn’t know the lady. But as this was my wife’s cousin’s grandmother (who I didn’t know) that passed away, I simply remembered my own nanima (grandmother).

I remembered how nanima used to listen to us with love. I remembered how she used to make delicious snacks for us. I remembered how she used to make us do the household chores and how she always got her way but got away with it because of how much we all adored her.

  • If you did not personally know the person that passed away, what do you remember about someone you did know?
  • If it’s your friend’s grandmother who passed away, then what fond memories do you have of your own grandmother?

Tip #3: Contemplate on the temporary nature and meaning of your own life

  • What is your own life about?
  • Do you really know how much time you have left?
  • What are you spending your time and energy on?
  • Is what you do going to bring you long term results?
  • What are you sacrificing due to your current activity?
  • What will happen to your body over the coming years and decades?
  • How will old age affect you?
  • How will disease affect you?
  • What provisions are you making for the time when you will no longer be around?

Tip #4: Recite a mantra over and over again in your head

One of my all time favourite mantras is the Navkar Mantra from the timeless Jain tradition.  It helps to calm the constant chatter that is taking place in my mind and it helps me to focus my thoughts on the qualities of those who have made huge strides in improving their spiritual state.

Navkar mantra

Om namo Arihantanam
Om namo Siddhanam
Om namo Aiyanianam
Om namo Uvajjayanam
Namo loye savve Sahunam
Eso pancho nammo karo
Savva pavo parnasano
Mangalanamcha savve siim
Padhamam havvai mangalam

In essence, with this mantra, I focus in on the qualities of:

  1. the Arihanta – those who have shone the light on how to rise above the mundane circumstances of everyday life and therefore to attain the state of abundant, infinite, eternal bliss.
  2. the Siddha – those who have done the immense work of freeing themselves from the shackles of karma, and all they now experience is a peak abundant state of bliss, knowledge, energy and consciousness.
  3. the Acharya – the heads of the spiritual organisations who, with great compassion, are helping masses of people to walk the path towards eternal peace and happiness.
  4. the Upadhyaya – the spiritual scholars who are making available the literature from the spiritual leaders of the past, for the benefit of the wider population.
  5. the Sadhus – the monks and nuns who are diligently putting into practice the lessons taught by all the above.

Reciting the above 9 lines over and over again has helped me in many situations where I have needed to be relaxed, centred and focus in on what matters the most.

Do you have a mantra that helps you calm your mind and focus your thoughts on what is important?

Tip #5: Immerse in the devotional music being played

Sometimes there is a lone person singing or there is a whole group performing.  Other times there is a CD or tape being played.

Whatever the source of the music, immerse in the music being played.  Listen in to the words and their deeper meaning.  Try to capture the emotion expressed by the performers.   Sing along if appropriate.  Do whatever it takes to fill your heart with bhakti bhaav (a deep devotional feeling).  I promise you – when you are so immersed in the music, those around you will start to align to it too.

Tip #6: Lend a hand – help with the logistics

When the family is grieving, sometimes things get forgotten. This is the time to jump in and lend a hand.

  • Can you help with setting up or putting away the chairs?
  • Can you help the musicians get set up?
  • Can you source tissues, drinking water and glasses?
  • Can you organise a couple of people to help pour water into glasses and take it round for the close family?
  • Could you help to direct the crowd and pause the line when speeches are being given, eulogies are being read, and main prayers being recited?

Tip #7: Help those around you to remain respectful too

Granted, this one takes a little practice, but when done right, this can add a lot of value to everyone in the room.

When the person next to you starts up a conversation with you, gently glance at them, smile softly, and don’t say a word.  They may keep trying to talk to you, but hopefully they will catch on to your subtle message.

When people are having a full-blown conversation behind you, turn around, gently say hi and then ask “Please remind me – why are we here today?  Do we have to talk in this room, or can we have respect for the family and sit in silence?”

Done with the right intention, they will hopefully get the message without you causing them any embarrassment.

If all else fails, go back to Tip #5, immerse yourself in the devotional music and sing along with bhakti bhaav in your heart.

What can you add?

Which of these activities do you take part in during prayer meetings and how do they work out for you? What can you add that would provide inspiration to us all, help improve our behaviour, and further enhance our compassion towards those who are grieving?

How to support someone at their time of loss

Written by Suraj Shah.

Do you know someone who recently faced the death of a loved one?

What was the first thought that entered your mind?  What was the first thing you did?

Chances are that you first thought “oh no” (or “oh shit!”) and at that moment you stumbled because you had no clue about the best way to reach out to them.

Should I go see them, give them a call, send them an SMS, send an email, write a letter, write on their Facebook wall, send flowers and a card, or do nothing at all?

Then there’s the question about what to say?

Do I ask what happened, say sorry about their loss, ask them how they are feeling, tell them how I’m feeling, or say “It’s probably all for the best”?

In our society, death is such a forbidden topic, that it’s no wonder we stumble when really we have a chance to shine and be a pillar of strength and warmth for our friends and family at their time of greatest need.

What to say to someone who has faced a loss

Although there is no “right” thing to say, certainly avoid the following phrases:

  • “I know how you feel”
  • “Time heals all wounds”
  • “Don’t dwell on it”
  • “It’s in the natural order of things”
  • “It’s time for you to move on”
  • “Be grateful you had him so long”
  • “You’re never given anything you can’t deal with”
  • “It’s probably all  for the best”
  • “Don’t feel bad”
  • “He lived a full life”

All that these insensitive platitudes will do is that they will hurt and upset your friend who will feel that you haven’t really acknowledged their loss.

Instead, consider this approach:

  1. Simply and honestly tell your friend how sorry you are for their loss.  Your honest will give them a breath of fresh air, because most other people will be presenting them with the above insensitivities.
  2. Don’t be tempted to avoid saying anything.  It is horrible for the bereaved person to wrongly feel that you don’t care enough about them and not get in touch.
  3. Do what feels right in your heart that communicates that you are with them, so that they do not feel alone.  They will pick up on your kindness.

Supporting your grieving friend through Active Listening

Although you can not take away the pain of someone suffering from a huge loss, one of the best things you can do to “be there” for them is to actively listen and help them express their feelings.

The technique of active listening can be cultivated by letting the other person express his or her own feelings, whilst suspending your own judgements.

Advice is generally the last thing they are looking for, even if they’ve asked for it.

How to Actively Listen:

  1. Put your full attention onto them and listen to what they are saying.
  2. In your own words, repeat back to them what you have understood from that they said.
  3. Check with them whether you have understood them correctly.
  4. Ask them to fill in any gaps in your understanding.
  5. Offer a response ONLY once they indicate that they feel fully understood.

Supporting your grieving friend by helping out

If talking and listening aren’t your strong points, there are plenty of ways to show your love and support by taking on some chores.  Here are a few ideas:

  • cleaning and tidying
  • organising mail
  • fielding phone calls
  • cooking a few meals
  • chauffeuring
  • washing clothes & ironing
  • helping them pick out what to wear

Your role as a friend

Remember that through all of this, you are in no way responsible for making the situation any better or taking away your friend’s pain.  Only they themselves, through a steady committed path, can overcome their own pain.  The most important thing you can do is empower your friend to keep expressing his feelings.

Have you faced a loss yourself?  What did your friends do well?  What could they have done better?

(Photo courtesy of megyarsh)