How to Care for Dying Children

One of the activities of Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche during his visit to Thailand this year is that he gave a keynote lecture at the international conference on child palliative care at Landmark Hotel in Bangkok. The topic was “How to Care for Dying Children.” Here are some excerpts of what he talked.

Rinpoche started by talking about children in general. It’s a very sad situation when children are afflicted with very serious diseases and that they had to leave this world after only a short time. What is important to dying children is that they need to realize that death is nothing terrifying. It is only a transition, a movement from here to there, and if one is prepared and knows what they will expect after the journey, then there is nothing to worry about or to be afraid of. Caregivers need to reassure the children that death is only like a journey. They will leave this place and arrive at another where there are good and kind people waiting for them.

The quality of the mind at the moment of death is very important. When children or adults for that matter suffer from illness, usually they let their minds be controlled by emotions such as fear and anger. In either case the mind is not still and thus is ill prepared for the journey to the other side. The mind should be cheerful and happy even when one is in full pain. Even though the body may be in pain, if the mind is strong and cheerful then the bodily pain will not do too much harm. On the contrary, if the mind is weak and controlled by negative emotions, then even mild illness can develop into more serious one. This cannot be emphasized enough. Buddhism pays very keen attention on the quality of the mind. Those who are cheerful even though they are very sick shows that they are able to control their pain. Their pain can even be reduced this way.

Rinpoche also gave us a trick. Instead of letting the illness take hold of us, we should instead look at it as our own instrument, our own way of making life better. What we are experiencing as our illness is only a result of past karma. This does not mean that we are bad persons for having done bad karmas that result in our illness right now. But it means that what happens at present is a consequence of what was done in the past. So we should look at the illness we are having now as our past negative karmas coming to fruition. If we survive the illness, then we will be cleansed of these past karmas and can start things anew without being weighed down by the karma. This is a very positive condition because we could achieve much greater things when we are not weighed down.

However, if the disease is so serious that we have to die anyway, then we should look at it as a means by which we have an opportunity to experience life to the fullest extent. Before we got the illness we may not be living to the full; we may think that we have so much time in our lives that we forgot to practice the Dharma and make our lives really worthwhile. But now that we know that we are having this life-threatening disease and that we may have a short while to live, we should make the best use of the remaining time. We should prepare for the journey and learn what to expect after we arrive at the other side. If we are caring for dying children, then we should tell them that they should understand how precious every moment of life is. One of the very good ways of making the situation positive is to make a wish that our own illnesses happen only to us so that countlessly many will not get it. Suppose we are having cancer, we could make a wish that the cancer happen to us alone so that countlessly many sentient beings will not get it any more. May the cancer that is taking place in my body now be the one that draws all other instances of the disease in all sentient beings to us, so that we have the disease alone and that nobody else have it. This is a very powerful wish. When the wish is genuine, then it goes a long way toward alleviating the situation. Even though we may not be able to escape the cancer, at least we are doing a positive action which will only result in our becoming better from now on.

So we can make this wish. Whenever we have a disease or are suffering in any other way, such as suffering from being misunderstood by others or from being a target of harm by others, we make a strong and sincere wish that what we are suffering happen to us alone and as a result all other sentient beings will not have to suffer like this any more. Suppose we are suffering from a headache, we can say to ourselves, making a wish, like this: May my headache be the headache of all sentient beings! May sentient beings be free from headaches and may my headache now take in all the sufferings of all sentient beings! This is a really powerful wish. It is a great way to make merit and a great preparation for the other life after we die. Even if we do not die now, the wish can be a powerful factor in our progress in Dharma practice.

As for children, we can gradually teach them to do this. We can gently teach them to look at their pain and disease as something wonderful. This is hard to do, but the irony is that the more you do it, the less pain you will feel, since the mind will be at peace and is happy. We need to realize that when children fear death, in many cases it is our own fear that is projected onto them, but if we look at the situation in a calm and spiritually uplifting manner, then there will be no fear and the passing away will be a great moment for the children and for us too.

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