At one point this past week we thought my grandfather, age 91, was engaging in the conscious act of embracing death. In a short period of time he went from active to bed-bound, eating to fasting. We called a family meeting to discuss his wishes. We held his hand, talked with him, and waited.
It is not uncommon for terminally ill senior citizens in the U.S. to forego food, drink and medicine in their final days to hasten death.
My cousin, raised in India, told me about a local tradition there, called Santhara or Sallekhana. This is a rare event in the Jain tradition, in which a Jain decides to obtain moksha (salvation) and stops eating and drinking water, waiting for death. To a Jain Sallekhana it is the conscious act of embracing death. This is different from suicide as suicide comes from passionate feeling like anger or despair. Sallekhana happens when the individual is free from all passions and death is already a certainty. Old age and terminal disease are the two times when a Jain could decide to get involved in the ritual of Sallekhana.
In recent years, ethical and legal issues have been raised around this practice in India as well as in the U.S.
My grandfather decided it wasn’t yet his time to go.
Across the country, my friend Ruth, age 98, did.
I have been sitting with her, as she embraces the dying process.
I will post on this soon.