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Comfort at the End

The happiest people in the world, it appears, are some monks who practise a form of Tibetan Buddhism. By the standards of the modern Western world, they don’t have fulfilling lives – they’re not constantly chasing after money, excitement, possessions and status. Instead, they meditate and concentrate on strengthening their compassion for others and weakening their obsession with themselves.

And that, it turns out, is the key to happiness. When we focus on ourselves, we lose it; when we focus on others, we gain it. You can see the same philosophy as the Buddhist monks’ in a recent story from Ireland. Patricia Armstrong is from Sligo in north-west Ireland. She has an everyday name and an extraordinary vocation: she visits a hospice to be with dying strangers in the final moments of their lives. “Vocation” is the right word, because she felt called to do what she does after she lost her own father at the hospice in 2008.

The hospice was a welcoming and cheerful place, full of love, light and compassion. It was somewhere that wasn’t ruled by the rat-race, the never-ending rush to get more – more money, more possessions, more status. Instead, the nurses and rest of the staff were there because they wanted to put the patients first and to ensure that the patients’ final days were as calm and comfortable as possible. Death can be a terrifying possibility and a very lonely reality.

Patricia Armstrong knows this and wants to be there as a comforting presence for someone who is taking those final steps into the dark. The simple act of holding someone’s hand can be of immeasurable worth at a time like that. But dying has no time-table: people can pass away at any moment of the day or night. Illnesses can suddenly worsen, carrying off a patient who the best medical brains thought would be still alive for weeks or even months to come.

That’s why even the most caring family can find it hard to have someone with a terminally ill relative at the moment of their passing. And some patients, sad to say, don’t have caring families or even perhaps any family at all. Patricia Armstrong is there regardless, ready to comfort a dying person whose relatives might be unable to reach the hospice in time or who are exhausted from a long period of waiting.

But her vocation doesn’t end there: dying can be far less painful and upsetting for the person who passes away than for the relatives left behind. Patricia Armstrong is there for the living too. And she does all this despite suffering from a long-lasting and painful illness herself. At only the age of fifty-one, she has a spinal condition that caused nerve damage in her legs, arthritis in her hips and destroyed her left knee.

In those circumstances, it would be easy for someone to feel sorry for themself and not care about other people. Patricia Armstrong hasn’t taken that self-defeating route. Instead, like the monks in Tibet, she has strengthened her compassion for others even as she’s weakened her concern for herself. She hasn’t sought a reward, but like the Tibetan monks she has received one: the contentment of knowing that she is helping to relieve suffering and lighten the darkness of an often cruel and cold world.