O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

by Jayanti (Pamela Hoye)

For the retreat “On Death and Dying” that she led last year is San Diego, Pravrajika Vrajaprana, of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, took a somewhat different approach. Instead of giving the customary series of lectures, she invited participants to share their own thoughts and experiences. This started me thinking about the “two sides of death” that I had accepted pretty much all my life. For as long as I can remember I’ve tended to view dying itself as either a positive or, at the very least, neutral for the one who has passed. It is my own perception of the circumstances of the death, and my feelings of loss, that provide the “sting.” As I considered this more deeply, I became aware of having experienced distinctly different reactions to recent deaths within my personal and my Vedanta family.


Now, at 102, Clementine Rigby was ready to leave the world. Mother had become her all in all. Yet, her final days were filled with struggle and seeming despair—peace coming only at the end. Her suffering distressed many of us. Where was Mother? Why should death, so naturally timed and carefully anticipated, prove so difficult? Our doubts were assuaged with the explanation from a swami that every last vestige of karma must be destroyed if one is to achieve liberation. Another revered swami had assured her that this would be her final birth. Having experienced Clemmy become expansive and all-loving in her later years, characteristics she herself attributed to the Mother’s power to transform, I cannot doubt that Mother did come for her child.

In the weeks preceding her passing, before complete weakness took its hold, Clemmy contacted many individuals: those who had touched her life and those who looked to her for encouragement. Assisted by our resident swami, who visited her almost daily, she made calls to friends, devotees, and monastics, near and far. While I imagine that each received her final message in their own way, I cannot help but feel that Clemmy’s life serves as an inspiration for all who knew her. How often do we witness a life brought to full completion and death fully embraced?


During Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s retreat I had shared with the group that having to “deal with a mix-up in arrangements” had kept me from reaching my mother’s side as she was dying. Given my many positive experiences associated with death, this was surprisingly negative. Clearly, a feeling of having “failed my mother” was weighing on me. Not long after the retreat, I received the news of Pravrajika Anandaprana’s impending passing with my usual acceptance. I recalled her kindness during my visits to the Santa Barbara Convent in the 90s, following my trip to India. She and the other pravrajikas had made this pilgrimage possible by providing me with the perfect companion. It was amid these fond memories that something wonderful happened. It was prompted by a comment, via email, from Pravrajika Vrajaprana.

The nuns had been busy making arrangements to bring Anandaprana back to the convent so she might depart in their loving company, but she died just before they were ready to move her. “As you can imagine,” wrote Vrajaprana, “we’re really sorry that we couldn’t get her home in time for her to pass away….but apparently the Lord had his own plan and she went for it!” Reading this, I smiled. Then I laughed out loud. Most likely Mom knew I was trying to come to her. She had simply been offered a better option than waiting for me!


In preparing the retreat flier I had recalled the story in the Mahabarata of Yudhisthira being asked: “Sir, of all of the things you’ve observed in life, what is the most amazing?” Upon reflection he replied: “That in seeing the death of animals and people all around them, no one believes that they will die.” To this I must add: or that someone you know will die unexpectedly. I am certain I was not alone in my feeling of utter surprise upon learning that John Schlenck was dead.

Yet, for me at least, “sudden death” acquired unprecedented meaning. Yudhisthira had gotten it right. I was dazed, wondering: “How can this be!” Freshest in my awareness was a sense of John poised, riding the crest of new creativity, happy, content, and so very alive. Hence, his death sent a resounding reminder that nothing is assured to us within this relative plane of existence. I imagine John, a longtime Vedantin adept in conveying its principles, amused by the unexpected twist of divine play that would use his very life and death to drive home this basic truth.

Being linked directly with love, we cannot avoid feelings of sadness and loss. We read of Mother and Thakur being overcome by grief. However, while theirs is an immediate, temporary response, ours is rooted in long held desires and expectations. They, who are all-loving, show us that it is possible to be attached through love without being bound by desires. As we come closer to the conviction that death itself has no sting, then even in this time of tremendous emotional stress we can begin to witness our reactions and learn from them. In the words of Mother:

However spiritual a person may be, one must pay the tax for the use of the body to the last farthing [i.e., suffering and death]. But the difference between a great soul and an ordinary person is this: the latter weeps while leaving this body, whereas the former laughs. Death seems to him a mere play.

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