Holding Environment for Dying

by | Death and Dying

There is a great deal we can do to help others as they die.  The best thing is to create a proper holding environment for dying.

What is a Holding Environment?

The idea of holding environments was created by the psychiatrist and pediatrician Donald Winnicott.  He used the idea of holding environments to help children grow up.  The idea is very simple: if you can create a proper holding environment for a child, natural and healthy growth will occur with in it.  It’s like extending the concept of a healthy womb during pregnancy.  If a mother takes good care of her developing child, that child will develop properly.  If not, all kinds of problems can arise later.

Its Like A Big Hug

As with the beginning of life, so with its end.  Our job, at the end of life, is to be a good midwife into the bardos.  In both birth and death, an individual is leaving an old world and entering a new one.  Our job is to make that transition as graceful as possible.  In terms of holding environments, think about how good it feels to get a big warm hug.  The usual response is a deep sense of relaxation.  You feel safe, loved, and secure.  That’s the feeling you want to create for someone who is dying.  Holding environments are really hugging environments.

Remember, the single best instruction for how to have a good death is to relax.  If you create a good holding environment, the natural response for someone in it is relaxation.  I have been with dying people who request that their beds be moved into the center of the room – so their loved ones can sit all around them.  I have seen family members crawl into bed with the dying person, often at the dying person’s request, so they can hold their loved ones.  I have even seen pets crawl into bed, to help create this warm and fuzzy feeling.

Create an Atmosphere of Unconditional Presence

When creating a holding environment for someone who is dying, as with meditation, the maxim “not too tight, not too loose,” is the key. If we hold them too tight, that amounts to grasping and will hinder their transition. If we hold them too loosely, or not at all, that can make them feel abandoned.We always bring an environment with us, a space or mood that represents our state of mind. If we’re anxious and uptight, the dying person tunes into that. If we’re open, spacious, and relaxed, they will tune into that.

Many hospice workers comment that as the dying person nears death, their mind becomes less contained by their body. They’re more aware of the atmosphere. It’s almost as if their mind is spilling into the room. The greatest gift we can therefore bring to a dying person is our unconditional presence, an attendance that fills the atmosphere with stability and love.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says,

“[E]ven if the person has lived a very unwholesome life, if you have been able to positively affect that person’s final state of mind, a beneficial rebirth may occur. That is one of the highest benefits you could have effected in the life of another person.”

Unconditional presence means unconditional acceptance. This is the best holding environment. If the death is rough, we accept and work with that. If it’s easy, we accept that. We don’t judge, impose, expect, or desire anything. This atmosphere of acceptance is contagious, and will help the dying person slide into a similar state of ease.

Psychologist Marie de Hennezel writes:

“Creating this atmosphere of warmth and calm around a sick person who is in torment is unquestionably the most beneficial thing one can do for him or her.”

She relates that for one nurse who was able to do this consistently, the patients on her shift always required fewer tranquilizers.

Unconditional presence is a state developed by meditation, and it propagates the space of meditation. Therefore one of the best things to do for the dying is to practice with them. If the person isn’t a meditator, ask them first if it’s okay to sit quietly with them, or just do it unobtrusively. Never force anything. An excessively “spiritual” atmosphere can have the opposite effect and unsettle the dying person.

Because their heart-mind is spilling into space, we can mix our heart-mind with theirs and actually practice for them. Christine Longaker writes:

“At the time of death, our spiritual practice can affect the person’s mind and heart in an extraordinary way. When we are resting in the vivid presence of the true nature of mind, or invoking the radiant, loving presence of a buddha or Divine Being, we are literally creating a sacred environment for him to die within. Our devoted spiritual practice may become his actual experience at the moment of death. It will make a strong imprint on his mind— and this last imprint is what he will wake up to after death.”

Excerpt From the book “Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition”

Preparing to Die

Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition