Buddhist monk offers guidance on saying goodbye to dying loved ones when coronavirus keeps you apart

·Senior Editor
How do you say goodbye when you can't go to a dying loved one's bedside? (Collage: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life/Getty Images)
How do you say goodbye when you can't go to a dying loved one's bedside? (Collage: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life/Getty Images)

Amidst reports of people dying alone, either at home or in hospitals or nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic, it can be hard to not feel hopeless and helpless about the possibility of losing a loved one — and then, on top of that, being robbed of the opportunity to say an in-person goodbye.

It’s a painful reality that many people are dealing with right now, including so-called “death doulas,” whose job it is to comfort and shepherd people through their own deaths with bedside sittings and counseling.

The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care is a Buddhist organization that provides multi-faith care to the ill and dying — about 100,000 people over its 14 years in operation — as well as trains laypeople and medical professionals. Now, cofounders and husbands Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell and Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison have had to readjust the ways they typically operate. That means moving a full calendar of in-person workshops, meditations (which have doubled in size), discussions, bereavement groups (also expanding) and palliative end-of-life care services online, to video platforms, to fit into our new, socially-distanced lifestyle.

“Everything has radically changed… But we have this time now, where death and the reality of our fragility is unavoidable,” Paley Ellison, a psychotherapist, monk, chaplain, Soto Zen Teacher and professor, tells Yahoo Life, explaining that it was his late grandmother, for whom he cared through her last days, who inspired the idea of the Center.

“Going with her to primary care visits, on ambulance rides, and eventually moving in with her, I saw through her and my eyes how afraid people are to be with people in their illness — beautiful, well-meaning people, but people very caught up in the business of distraction and fear,” he recalls. “People would come visit and be really afraid. I remember them standing at the foot of the bed and clutching the rail and not wanting to get close, and it was so powerful.”

Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison teaches how to come to terms with death — and not lose all joy — at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. (Photo: Courtesy of NYZCCC)
Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison teaches how to come to terms with death — and not lose all joy — at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. (Photo: Courtesy of NYZCCC)

The experience would nudge both him and Campbell, who was a hospice volunteer at the time, to dedicate themselves to helping people confront their own fears and discomforts around some of the most inevitable truths: aging, illness and death.

But how can anybody do that properly now, when human touch and expected rituals around death and dying have been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s what Paley Ellison advises.

Embrace the idea that video connections are not “virtual,” but real 

“I think it’s not virtual,” Paley Ellison says, speaking to Yahoo Life over Zoom. “I’m here in this room and you’re there in that room and we’re both real and we’re not virtual — the connection is a real connection. I can hear the timbre of your voice… bringing the human level.”

The center has been overseeing rituals from memorial services to marriages on Zoom, “and it’s all very real,” he says. “What we’re doing in the hospitals and with our care team is by [video] and phone, but still working to be a steady presence in people’s lives. We have a group of elders in our community that used to meet monthly but now meets every other week because they are among our most vulnerable, and this is a way to talk with them about their fears and how they’re coping and learning how to lean into what they’re experiencing.”

Paley Ellison says that through their community, they’ve been “finding how to hold presence together over this technology. We are in some ways blessed because we have telephones and screens.”

Whereas, with texting culture, he says, “it’s hard to get emotional resonance. So we’ve been using phone and Zoom and FaceTime because we can still regulate and support each other emotionally by seeing someone’s face, and actually what someone’s voice and breath does to you. It’s really dropping into the humanness and saying, ‘I’m here and you’re there, and how can we be together?’”

Re-create rituals

To that end, aim to move in-real-life experiences to video, particularly when it comes to connecting with a loved one who may be isolated in the hospital. “It’s depending on the hospital, it might be possible and it might not,” Paley Ellison notes. “My cousin contracted [COVD-19] and he was at a hospital in Brooklyn and the staff was so overwhelmed that we couldn’t do it.” He wound up dying alone. And because of that, Paley Ellison and his family were forced to rethink the ritual of saying goodbye.

Video connections are not "virtual," but real. (Collage: Nathalie G. Cruz for Yahoo Life/Getty Images)
Video connections are not "virtual," but real. (Collage: Nathalie G. Cruz for Yahoo Life/Getty Images)

They decided to come together for a Zoom memorial, “and talked about how painful it was, and what our wishes for him were,” he says. “So, I think yes, if it’s possible to do FaceTime with your loved one, try to do that. If it’s not, find ways to connect and give voice to what you want to say to that person. For us as a family, we all loved him so much and it was so painful to not be able to see him… But it felt like we also honored him.”

Paley Ellison stresses the power of imagination in any new ritual, noting, “we can still imagine we’re at somebody’s bedside, to use the beauty of imagination. The specificity of it is very important — what is it that we want to say and imagine for our loved ones?”

At whatever service you do create to honor a loved one, he says, “there might be prayers that are important, or poems, but the main thing is the remembering.” Because that’s when, he says, “you can tap into the real feeling — the grief and the joy and the laughter and the funny stories and how they were a pain in the a**. And their realness lives in each of us.”

Don’t wait to say “I love you”

“We’ve been having lots of community conversations…about unfinished business,” Paley Ellison says, which is simply facing a reality. “We live in a time where, if one person you know gets sick, you may not see them again. And what’s interesting is that it’s always been true.” Most people have not wanted to face that reality, but now, he says, he is encouraging people to have those conversations, and “to have deeper relationships, and reflect on what is it that’s left unsaid: Have you appreciated the people who have helped you be who you are? Have you really told the people you love how you love them? If you’ve hurt someone, have you apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry’?”

There’s also no better time to “wake up to how precious life is,” he says, noting that one of the biggest regrets he hears from terminally ill people is “I didn’t love well,” or “why was I so afraid of so many things?” So, looking at fear and love, he says, “has been really a central part of what we’re teaching these days.”

To that end, he’s offering a new workshop called Living Fearlessly. “It’s really looking at putting your affairs in order, and is based on the Steven Levine book, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if it Were Your Last,” he says. “But we’re doing it as eight weeks — bringing the urgency, and turning towards the urgency.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.