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The Dharma of Consciously Dying

by Deb Shapiro & Kiri Westby: The vast majority of us will have no idea when, where, or with whom we will die.

AwakenWe leave our ultimate fate to the fates, stepping out into the unknown every day.

In Buddhism, we say “death comes without warning, this body shall be a corpse. At that time the Dharma is my only help, I shall practice it with exertion.” The basic idea being that we have no idea when death will come for each of us, so best to practice the dharma all the time. However, for a small minority of us diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease such as Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Huntington’s Disease (HD), the end is not only coming, it promises to be terrible. For those folks, thanks to the compassion of Colorado voters, there is a painless and peaceful option for ending one’s life with medical assistance. In 2016, Colorado overwhelming passed Proposition 106, Access to Medical Aid In Dying,” which amended Colorado statutes to include the Colorado End-of-life Options Act. This law allows people diagnosed with six months or less to live, to fill out a “request to end my life in a peaceful manner” form and therefore decide, consciously, to die on their own terms.

September 10th at 1:00pm. That is the time Debbie Shapiro, a longtime contributor to and the author of several books on meditation and mindfulness, has chosen to “consciously exit” her life. While the facts of that are incredibly sad, the reality has been profoundly moving. Debbie has been busy preparing her end of life ceremony and tying up all the financial and material loose-ends that her long, and very full, life created. She has said her personal goodbyes, sent her last emails, paid all her bills, given away nearly everything she owns, found a good home for her cat, and decided on who she wants to be there in the room to send her off.

I sat down with Debbie this week, struggling a bit to breathe, no longer able to type, and asked if she’d write one last blog with me. Her enthusiasm and readiness for death felt so out of place when compared to our normal cultural scripts about holding onto life as long as possible. Debbie asked that I share her final words with others, in the hopes that they might allow someone else to consciously let go as well:

Debbie:  This decision for me was a “no brainer.” I have been thinking about and talking about how to figure a way out of this body for awhile now. Once my husband and primary caregiver passed away three months ago, I have been on my own and realizing how much I need people to help me…to feed me, to brush my teeth, to move me around. I can’t even open an envelope anymore! The only place left for me to go is a nursing home, surrounded by strangers, waiting for what promises to be a painful end. So now I have a way out, what I am calling my “conscious exit,” and it is much more freeing and relieving than I could’ve imagined. The moment I learned I could do this, I felt so happy that I wouldn’t have to maintain this life within this body much longer. I have nothing left holding me here or tying me to the earth, therefore the idea of being able to go now is like heaven, a complete relief knowing that I won’t have to exist in this body anymore. The gift of being able to choose when and where I go, to say my final goodbyes to family and friends, is so rare and precious. I am full of gratitude, not an ounce of sadness.

The support my community has given me around this decision has blown my mind. People have sent messages and said such kind and wonderful things. I am so blessed to be able to receive their final words and wishes while I’m still alive. Because all I’m doing, really, is speeding up the dying process…we all have to die, and this option has now given me a sense of control and total peace around the end process. Although I will say that it’s very strange to figure out what to say to folks during our final conversations! You can’t really say “see you later,” or “talk to you soon.” My brother flew over from England with his family to say goodbye and we had a lovely day together…but at the end I simply had to just say “get the hell out of here,’ as I couldn’t bare their tears or their heartbreak at this being our last moments together. That’s the hard bit with this choice to end my life peacefully. When someone dies without any warning, as my husband did, you don’t have the chance to say goodbye…and how many times after someone dies suddenly do we then think, “Oh I wish I had had the chance to say such and such. Or tell them I loved them once more?”

I am very lucky that I won’t be leaving anything left unsaid, or any extra work or fuss for those that I love. I will be in my home, surrounded by my community, beginning this journey on my terms. Some people say that I am being very brave but I don’t think of this choice as particularly brave, it’s just what’s happening. All I know is that I want to remain as aware as possible, right until the end, and enter the great unknown with total consciousness and peace of mind. This is something we’re all going to go through, we all have to die, and when you’re no longer attached to the ego or the body, it’s simply time to let go. I have no idea what will happen next, and I wish I could send a postcard from the other side, but all I know is that the potential excites me! What in the world comes next? Well, I know it’s something other than this and I’m completely ready for that. I’ve been in a wheelchair for nine years, and now I’m losing the use of my arms entirely. That’s not a life I’m interested in living. I do have to be able to administer the final medicine to myself and I worry that if I wait much longer, I won’t have the arm strength left to do it. So my choices are dwindling as fast as my muscle mass. I am absolutely sure this is my time to go and I am completely at peace.

I suppose if I can leave you all with anything it’s something my friend Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, once said to me: “There are only three things important in life and they are to be kind, to be kind, and to be kind”…and I would add to that “You can never love too much! So be kind, love abundantly, and you’ll always be on the right path.”

The morning went as planned. Debbie’s closest people gathered in her living room, sat around the dining table where she spent most of her days, and told stories about how much she had affected their lives. At 12:00pm she took the first two medicines (Ondansetron and Metoclopramide), which are to prevent nausea or any strong reaction to the next meds. For the following hour, we shared more stories, laughed, cried, and I read everyone the blog you’re reading now with Debbie’s final message to the world. At 1:00pm, with no hesitation whatsoever, Debbie drank the liquid DDMA (Digoxin, Diazepam, Morphine Sulfate, Amitriptyline), took her last ride in the Hoyer (a machine that lifts her out of her wheelchair), and settled into a cozy space in her bed. Her final words were, “this is exactly what I wanted and I love you all for helping me get here.” Her last wish was to sip on a little hot chocolate, as the taste of the final medicine was “horrible,” and to listen to His Holiness The Dalai Lama chanting the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra (linked below). Debbie and her late husband Eddie spent time with the Dalai Lama in his home in Dharmsala, India. Debbie’s International community was informed of her chosen time and sent the same mantra to listen to, connecting dozens of us across the globe at the moment of her passing.

There was a little bit of coughing as she began to struggle to breath, but then


she just closed her eyes, tilted her head to the side, and left her body. We could all feel her consciousness leave the room about fifteen minutes after she drank the mixture. We thought she was gone completely, but then her body continued to breathe, and her heart continued to beat, for another hour or so.  When it stopped, it just stopped; there was no violence, no fight, and no regrets. It was, to date, the most peaceful and simple death I have witnessed and it brought me a deep sense of relief and calm. This was her final teaching to me, and to all of us: that we can just let go when it’s our time to go. I will carry that with me for the rest of my days and I hope, as Debbie did, that telling her story, about the profound choice to die on her own terms, may be of some help to others facing a similar path.

In gratitude and grace,


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