Facing Death Head – on
In 2002, Terrell Jones died from cancer at his home in Copper Hill, Virginia. Eight years earlier he had discovered Vipassana, and soon afterwards his wife Diane also attended a course. Together they became serious meditators, sitting and serving as much as possible.
Even the knowledge of his imminent death could not deter them from serving. In the weeks before his death, he and Diane were fully occupied as registrars for a nearby non-center course.
Two weeks before he died, Diane drove Terrell 12 hours north to the Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dharā, in Massachusetts, where Goenkaji and his wife Mataji were visiting. They wished to pay respects to them and express their gratitude for the gift of Vipassana. Throughout their visit Terrell was an inspiration to all: no fear, no regrets—just joy and gratitude.
Terrell had only 10 weeks to come to terms not only with terminal cancer, but with losing his love of 30 years. He had, as well, to face the fact that he would not be present to help and comfort her.
As she watched his body withering, Diane had the same 10 weeks to learn to cope with the death of her husband of 30 years. In her mind, she faced his death each day.
Terrell and Diane had always wanted to find a way to diminish their mutual attachment, so that whoever survived the other would suffer less intense grief at the loss. They both knew that Vipassana was the way.
They meditated together every day, sometimes for many hours. They maintained their awareness of sensations in the sadness of their prolonged parting and, as equanimously as possible, watched their grief and fear. Terrell’s fervent wish, near the end, was to have a peaceful mind, full of equanimity, with a strong awareness of sensations at the moment of death—a wish that was fulfilled.
While in Massachusetts, Terrell and Diane gladly agreed to be interviewed, and to share their thoughts and feelings about their lives and his impending death.
Terrell: Well, you know I have cancer with, the doctors say, only a very slim chance of beating it. But that’s just a game with numbers. The way that Diane and I are dealing with it is, actually—we’re happy. Crazy as it sounds, we’ve found the cancer to be a gift because it has shown us so much that we were previously unaware of in our day-to-day lives. Every day we recognize more people and things to be grateful for. In the past we just, I suppose, took them for granted—especially our friends who love us, whom we were too little aware of. We don’t have— or at least, we might not have—that much time left, so we don’t take things for granted any more. We always feel so fortunate for what we have.
Virginia: Are you afraid?
No, I’m not afraid. What’s there to be afraid of? I might die in the next 30 days, I don’t know. But I might not die for 30 years. Even if I have another 30 years, I’m not going to be any more ready to die then than I am now. I’m still going to have to go through exactly what I’m going through now. At this moment I have a 50-50 chance of getting through it. I’m either going to come through it alive, or come through it dead: 50-50.
Death is absolutely inevitable. Every single one of us will die sometime. Those who haven’t been given their sentence by the medical profession, they’re out there. But they’re busy; they aren’t sitting around thinking every minute about death. Whereas I don’t have a lot of other things to think about, so perhaps my focus is a bit sharper than theirs.
Tell me about your discovery of Vipassana.
I was chatting with a friend one night and mentioned that I was having trouble with people; I just couldn’t talk with anybody. He said, “You know, I took this course once and spent 10 days in Noble Silence,” and I wanted to go for that alone. Amazingly, even though he hadn’t kept up his practice, he had with him those two little information booklets that are sent to people who are curious, who want to know about courses. He still had them in a suitcase. I read them and immediately wanted to go.
But I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been on a donation basis. Because I had been in and out of various groups, I was very skeptical. Once I got into a group and started looking a little deeper, I always found something commercial in it for somebody’s financial gain. But offering Vipassana free of charge showed me this organization’s volition was different. I was here at the center within six weeks of having read those two brochures.
When I came out of that 10-day course my mind began to circle back to all the problems I had back home and, incredibly, they weren’t there. The reactions I would have had to certain thoughts about family or friends were all gone. I was filled with awareness of what I had, of how grateful I should have been for the people in my life who put up with my behavior as long as they had. I couldn’t wait to get on the phone with Diane to tell her how much I loved her and to beg her to give me another chance. Not long after she too went to a course and from that time on, you know, we’ve practiced very deeply, several times a year, many courses. Our understanding has deepened. The solution to all our different problems has come down to: purify, purify, purify.
Since we had always been so much in love with each other, our goal then became gaining enough wisdom in Vipassana so that when one of us was dying we would be able to go through it without totally falling apart. And we are extremely fortunate that we attained that goal. We didn’t know it, you know. We didn’t know that we had attained the goal until it happened. We had no idea how we would react to one of us facing death, no idea at all. When it happened, we discovered that an entirely new understanding of what death is had taken place on a very deep level within us. Beneath the rational mind, on the unconscious level, something had gone; it had been purified by the practice of Vipassana.
In this experience we’re having with death right now, I can’t exactly say … I can’t really say in words what isn’t there any more. Whatever it was that used to make me react with fear to the thought of dying is no longer there. I can’t explain it, except that somehow all the years of meditation have eliminated that, have cut that problem off at the root. It’s wonderful.
Diane, how do you deal with yourself and your sensations when you see Terrell in great pain? How do you cope with not being able to relieve it? Do you help in some other way, psychologically?
Diane: Often, with this cancer, Terrell’s experiencing a great deal of discomfort. Loving him as I do, I always want to be able to help him with that. But there are many times when I’m unable to do so. I try to make his position more comfortable and give him things like his medication to try to help him, but often it doesn’t work. There are moments when I feel like, “Gee, what else can I do?”
I want to help but, in fact, I can’t really do that much physically. That’s where meditation is helpful. I’ll say, “Terrell, let’s focus on our breath; let’s focus on our sensations.” He’ll focus on his pain and I’ll focus on mine.
My pain is the pain of feeling helpless, and yet that’s always changing, that’s anicca. It changes from moment to moment. I have these feelings sometimes of wanting to help and being unable to, and that’s when my strength comes. It comes from within, from years of practicing and becoming aware of what’s happening in the moment and being equanimous with that— having a balanced mind, and being aware of anicca.
So when those times come, I focus on my breath because that’s where what Goenkaji calls “little volcanoes” come up. I can feel them coming, and as they do I focus on my breath; I focus on the sensations. Sometimes I might even cry. When the tears come, I feel them burning my face. I focus on that; I focus on the tears falling. I focus on the lump in my throat. As I feel sensations throughout my body, it eases the discomfort. I can help him more by his seeing that it works and, when he sees that, he’s more focused. It’s a partnership. It works both ways. When he sees me in discomfort, he does the same for me.
Many people might now consider your position to be the more difficult one, since you will be the one left behind.
I know, I hear that all the time. “You’re the caregiver, and the one who’s left behind is going to have it more difficult.” But, like we said before, our practice has given us strength and understanding of anicca—change, change, change. When he passes I’ll have the strength of my practice, the strength of Vipassana, and mettā, love. All the people who have supported us through the years, and the practice, give me strength. I am so grateful for Vipassana coming into my life through him. We’ve grown, we’ve grown with an understanding that’s far beyond words. I can’t express it.
We’ve meditated together every day since the day we started. We’ve never wavered. It’s always been an important part of our lives. As we’ve become older, giving service has also become very important. In the last few years, we decided that we would spend the rest of our lives just serving and sitting. That would not only help spread the Dhamma, but it would help us strengthen our practice. Our day-to-day practice and our commitment are strong.
Terrell, could you talk about service?
Terrell: Giving service is as incredible as sitting a Vipassana course. Service is another entire course in itself. I did my first 20-day service last year. I fell in love with serving long courses. You’re there serving every day. You’re doing it because you’re grateful for what’s been given to you, and you want to give it to others. That feeling of wanting to serve others is a beautiful feeling—uplifting and so satisfying. You know that you’re giving the gift of your time so that others can practice Vipassana, but the gift that servers receive is just as valuable, if not more so. It’s wonderful to look out across a sea of meditators and know that you have to be a part of it for it to take place. Every person there, from the teacher to the one cleaning the toilets, is necessary—they just have different functions. Some take more training than others but, without the servers, the course couldn’t happen at all.
How do you find a balance between fighting for your life and achieving a calm acceptance of the medical verdict?
I find myself in the circumstance of having terminal cancer. Strange words. I have never really thought of myself as having terminal cancer. In the medical literature, and in all the alternative therapies I’ve read about, if I find something that has worked, seems to have worked, has been highly touted as helping, or has helped before, I try it. But I’m not attached, because I’m not afraid to die.
I’m going to die now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now,
30 years from now—I am going to die. There’s no getting around the fact that I’m going to die. Therefore I’m not desperate that something has to work. It doesn’t have to work now. If it works, great: Diane and I have much more time to sit and serve. If it doesn’t work, great: we’ve had this fabulous time together. We came to the Dhamma together. All these wonderful things have happened to us. We’re filled with gratitude. We’re going to be happy no matter what.
A month after Terrell’s death, Diane returned to Massachusetts to meditate. She recounted her memories of his passing and the time leading up to it.
Diane: On the morning of his death, we got up and meditated. Later, while talking to a friend on the phone I heard Terrell say, “Diane, you need to come here now.” “Okay, I replied.” and hung up. When I got in there he told me, “It’s time.” Again, I said, “Okay.”
We talked a little and he asked, “Make sure I’m doing it right. Am I doing it right, honey?” I reassured him, “Yes, you are doing it right.”
He was so aware, he was starting to glow. His skin color changed; he just glowed! My friend who was with me looked at him and confirmed, “He’s glowing.” He was so filled with love, so filled with compassion, and the Dhamma was just … you could see, he was aglow. He was totally in it.
He said to me, “It’s okay, honey. You’re going to be fine.” He had no fear; he was aware of everything around him. He looked at me. “Honey, I’m losing my eyesight; it’s going now,” and he puckered up for me to kiss him. I kissed him.
At that moment, that’s all I could do—to thank him for giving me this great gift of Dhamma. It wasn’t really hard to let go because the Dhamma was fully there; it just was. I felt no holding on.
Before he died, he began to chant. He wasn’t gasping for breath; it was a very calm and beautiful breath filled with love, filled with compassion for the whole world. I wasn’t “me,” there was no “I,” no “me,” no “mine.” That moment was so pure; I had totally surrendered to the Dhamma.
We had been very attached to each other and knew it wasn’t good. We had hoped that Vipassana would show us the way to get past it. I often wondered if it would really work when the final moment came—and it did. I was losing the love of my life, my best friend, my mentor. I let him go; I didn’t cling or try to hold on to him. I didn’t even have to think about it; it simply happened that way. It was not only a joy, it was an honor to be with him and experience this with him, to help him through those last moments. I was filled with joy. It’s hard to explain.
As he took his last breath, an energy went through me that I can’t really explain. It just shot through me, a good energy. It was comforting, and I knew at that moment that he had gone— from life to death.
It was then that something became clear to me. I finally understood—nine years I had been meditating, being aware of sensations and being equanimous with the understanding of anicca—it was so clear to me, crystal clear: this was anicca. This was it.
My heart was wide open. I was not Diane. I was totally in the present moment with full understanding of anicca, the impermanence of it all. I was totally unattached to everything, and I was so filled with joy that he was able to give me this gift of the understanding of this moment. I shall have that with me forever and, I hope, be able to share it with other people.
After Terrell took his last breath in this life, there were tears but no grief—only overwhelming joy. It is hard to explain that, because people feel that, when you have just lost the love of your life, you should be totally beside yourself. But I was filled with mettā.
A few hours after he died, people came to take his body to the funeral home. I sat in the rocking chair in the living room by myself. I looked around at all his treasures and realized the only treasure he took with him was his Dhamma.
For a while, I couldn’t make decisions. I’d go to do something and just stand there as if I were waiting for him. We always made decisions together, even little ones. This closeness is what people miss when they’ve been with someone for a long time. There’s an emptiness that is very hard to deal with.
Since his death, there have been tears and moments of grief. I miss him but, because I have this practice, I can get on my cushion. I sit there and focus on my breath—even if tears are wet on my cheeks—observing loneliness, sadness, emptiness, the pain in my heart—feeling sorry for myself. I just observe it and let it do its thing.
Jarā vyādhi se mauta se,
lade akelā eka.
Koī sātha na de sake,
parijana svajana aneka.
Old age, sickness, death,
we face these all alone.
No one can share them with us,
though many be near and dear.
—Hindi doha, S.N. Goenka
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