Conscious living, conscious dying: Sarah Cowles Doering (1926-2018)

My mother Sarah Cowles Doering died peacefully on November 16, 2018. She was 92 years old. Soon after she died, I wrote a brief account of the last days of her life and shared it with close family and friends. I am posting it below, with light edits, in hopes that this story will encourage all of us who wonder about the mystery of living and dying, and all of us who hope to come to terms with – even to make peace with – our own death and the deaths of our loved ones.

                         Sarah Cowles Doering in 2011

As a child, I used to worry that my mother was a saint, a struggle that I portray in my memoir, Holy Hunger.  No, she was not a saint, if by “saint” we mean someone who is a paragon of virtue and benevolence. My mother, like everybody else, was not perfect. She had her limits and wounds, and in some respects I struggled with her until the day she died. But she was indeed a saint, if by “saint” we mean someone who allows her life to be changed by spiritual practice and by what Christians call the redemptive love of God. She lived an extraordinary life of generosity and compassion, and she died as she lived, curious to the end, mindful of every breath. I believe that she died a holy death.

As her obituary explains, Sarah Doering was a spiritual guide, meditation teacher, and philanthropist who played an instrumental role in helping Buddhism take root in the United States. Directly or indirectly, she touched the lives of thousands of people.

                  The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies posted a tribute to her here
                  Insight Meditation Society posted a tribute to her here

Throughout her months in hospice, my mother was serene, resolute, even joyful, accepting the changes in her body with equanimity. Increasingly weak after five months in bed, she was finally ready to let life go. She made a decision to hasten the process and stop eating and drinking. She consulted with her four children, knew that we accepted her decision, and had her last meal on the night of November 5. Having practiced Buddhist insight meditation for almost 40 years, she was curious about the dying process and wanted to stay as conscious as possible for as long as possible.

She experienced her suffering in the widest possible context. As she grew thirsty, she spoke about the thirst of the migrant “caravan” making its way to the U.S. border, as if her own personal pain was a window into the pain of others, a way of experiencing solidarity and compassion. She asked for hardly any pain medication, until, to the great relief of her children and doctor, she finally asked for a little morphine on Day #9, because, she said, she was curious about the effect of morphine on the body. It wasn’t until Day #10, the last day of her life, that she finally requested regular doses of morphine.

During her last week, she dictated brief letters of thanks to friends and family members, appreciating them for what they had given her over the years. Until her energy ebbed away, she remained thoroughly engaged with life, reading (among other things) a biography of Genghis Khan and the latest novel by Barbara Kingsolver, and – true to the legacy of the Cowles family – poring over the daily newspaper. She rejoiced that a Democrat finally won the Senate seat in Arizona. On the last day of her life, she asked what the headlines were.

Thanks to her many months of gradually declining health, all four of us children had a chance to say our goodbyes. The approach of death can sometimes dissolve long-standing barriers, and I think it’s fair to say that in the last weeks of our mother’s life, we children shared more love and truthfulness with her, and vice versa, than we ever had before. I am grateful.

Statue of Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva (Goddess) of Compassion, in the garden of Insight Meditation Society. Photo credit: IMS/Elizabeth Vigeon

We will hold two memorial services, one at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst (on June 8, 2019) and another at Insight Meditation Society in Barre (on June 9). It feels appropriate to celebrate her life with two memorials, one Christian and one Buddhist, for she treasured both traditions. A week before she died, she spent a day avidly reading the New Testament from the worn, marked-up Bible that she had used in seminary. She had spent a whole year studying those texts, and she seemed delighted to return to them, commenting that she saw more in them now than she had when she studied them years before. In the days just before she died, my brother John read aloud to her an essay by Ajahn Chah, the Thai Buddhist meditation master, “Our Real Home: A Talk to an Aging Lay Disciple Approaching Death.” My mother found this text and the practice of Buddhist meditation extremely helpful as she died, commenting at one point, “I don’t want to get lost between breaths.”

Although she practiced and found meaning in both traditions, a few days before she died she whispered to John and me that she was neither “a Buddhist” nor “a Christian,” because ultimate reality is too vast to be encompassed by any box. Then, for the first and last time, she smiled and stretched her arms open in a big embrace.

The day after my mother died, one of the staff members of the hospice center commented that she had never seen a death as peaceful as my mother’s, adding that if dying with such love and lucidity was a fruit of years of meditation practice, then she herself needed to start a meditation practice.

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints on heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer. (The Book of Common Prayer)


17 Responses to “Conscious living, conscious dying: Sarah Cowles Doering (1926-2018)”

  1. Dee A Cappelletti

    Margaret, I wish I had known your mom, she sounds amazing, I can tell! So are you, I met you at St Marks Episcopal, Seattle WA. Hope you come back and visit us again. I am at an age that I must consider leaving this earth any time. I have accepted that and am ready any time our Lord calls me. Thank you for sharing your mom’s last days with me, I hope I get to meet her someday. You have made me more sure that I am ready for what is coming… there are times when I find myself looking forward to what is ahead for us… this is one of those times. Thank you so much, Dee Cappelletti I have lost both of my parents so I know what you are going though, just remember, you have not lost her. You will be together again… God Bless You!!!

    • mbj

      Thank you for your kind words, Dee. Yes, you and I and actually ALL of us are at an age when we “must consider leaving this earth at any time.” Maybe one of the gifts of being older is that we become more aware that life is precious and brief and comes to an end. Everything is gift! How wonderful that you feel ready to let go this life and step into your larger life with God. I wish you blessings today and every day.

  2. Randy Wilburn

    Beautiful. Thank You
    Prayers Ascending

    • mbj

      Thank you for your prayers, Randy. This is a liminal time — like standing on the threshold between worlds. Grief is like that. Love is like that. Thanks for being with me in Spirit.

  3. Laura

    Your mother showed the overwhelmingly lovely characteristics of my spiritual adviser, Mariel Kinsey, who left this life last year, and she too, immersed in both Christianity and in Buddhism, said, “I don’t identify this way.” Like your mom, she also felt that the Maker and Sustainer of All Things is too big to be confined in any “box” — How lucky we are to have women like these in our lives!!!

  4. laura

    …and as a postscript, I’m struck by the expressions of your mom and of Mariel. So similar that it makes me certain all over again that we’ve got a foot in both worlds and the membrane between the two–the “already” and the “not yet” — is thin indeed. That explains the serenity!!!

    • mbj

      Dear Laura, How wonderful that you, too, knew Mariel Kinsey, who was truly a noble soul. It seems to me that immersion in both Buddhist and Christian practices can bear forth good fruit. In Buddhism we find a path of mindfulness and contemplative practices; in Christianity we find a path of love and devotion, and of prayer that leads to political/social engagement and back to prayer. Hurrah for all practices that help to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and serenity!

  5. Leah Schade

    I’m so glad you shared this, Margaret. What a holy witness you have provided about your mother’s life and death. You have multiplied the ripples of peace by writing about and sharing this reflection.

    • mbj

      Thank you, Leah, for encouraging me to share this story with the wider world. Peace to you and yours as we do our best to live — and die — with integrity and awareness.

  6. Dan Breslaw

    Gosh Margaret, I’m amazed to read this. When I met you I knew nothing about your family, except that you were growing up at the time your dad was master of Quincy House where I happened to be frequently coming and going. I did not know anything about your mom. However Jude and I did our first Vipassana retreats at IMS in the mid-seventies, and it has been our spiritual home ever since. Jack and Joseph and Sharon were our first teachers–still principal guiding lights after 40 years of practice that continues to unfold. Your mom’s story blows me away. I know that “story” is not the main one for you, having lost her. But I just want you to know you how much, for us, who did not know her, her essence nonetheless shines blazingly through this collection of testimonials and biographical details. What a radiant soul she must have been. And–as we ourselves approach the great emptiness–what an example of a graceful passage!

    I also understand, just a wee bit better, the work you and Jonas are doing in the world. What better illustration that all true spiritual paths converge.

    Peace and blessings on you–may the spirit your mom handed down so beautifully go forth.

    • mbj

      It is so good to know that you have learned and benefited from the IMS community and from the practice of meditation. Thank you, Dan, for your generous words appreciating my mother’s witness.

  7. Kerry Maloney

    A holy witness indeed. And she left her best, deepest witness in her children. Thank you for carrying on in her vast spirit, Margaret.

  8. Sally Popper

    I didn’t know your mother, Margaret, but what I have read about her, mostly written by you I suspect, makes so clear what a light she was in the world. So glad you can see that despite your struggles with her. I just see the light she was radiating around us and holding us all in it’s love.

    • mbj

      Thank you, Sally! And thank you for the light that YOU shine.

  9. Marie-Caroline

    Thank you, dear Margaret, for this moving piece.
    With love and warm wishes for a peaceful Christmas,

    • mbj

      Such a lovely surprise to hear from you, Marie-Caroline. Thank you for your kind message. I wish you and all you love a joyful, peaceful Christmas.

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