Making Friends with Death

July 27, 2014 Death Awareness

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jll-book-cover2Making Friends with Death
by Judith Lief

This book draws from the author’s experience offering workshops on a contemplative approach to facing one’s own mortality and working with the dying to people of different backgrounds — professional caregivers such as nurses, doctors, and social workers, chaplains, family members caring for loved ones, people dealing with terminal illnesses, and those who were  simply curious about the benefits of meditative and contemplative practices.

Making Friends with Death is structured around three main themes: awareness, kindness, and openness.  In each section, Ms. Lief  introduces teachings and practices drawn from her Buddhist training that can be helpful no matter what the reader’s background or tradition may be.

The book provides a number of practice instructions and short exercises to engage the reader.  The three core practices of her contemplative approach include mindfulness meditation, compassion training through a practice called sending and taking or (Tib.) tonglen, and the contemplation of the reality of death.

Included in the book is a discussion of six short slogans or reminders designed to help one be more mindful, self-aware, and attentive in caring for the dying. There is also a provocative discussion of the nature of compassion and the importance of being aware of the many pitfalls to its genuine expression.

Although this book is centered around the topic of death and loss, the practice and insights it contains are relevant  and useful tools for dealing with the ordinary challenges of daily life. It turns out that the same tools that help us to face death more sanely and help others with more insight and skill are the very tools that can help us to lead more creative and fulfilling lives. So by making friends with death, we are in fact making friends with life.


Marilyn Webb. Author of The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life (Bantam).

“In Making Friends With Death, Judith Lief masterfully conveys the profound core of the teachings of Buddhism so that anyone can hear and understand. She shows us that in the end, it is kindness, compassion and mindful attention that matter, and teaches us the simple skill of just being –in all its rawness, love and pain–with those who are dying.”


Florence Wald. Founder of Connecticut Hospice, Former Dean of Yale School of Nursing

“Judith Lief is a seasoned care giver who walks the neophyte through the extending of one’s self to another. She presents the issues and common difficulties at hand, emphasizes the importance of attention to details, but centers on knowing what each patient wants for her or his situation. This defines effective compassion.”


Roshi Bernie Glassman. Founder of Greyston Foundation. Author of Instructions to the Cook

“Whether you will die tomorrow or 50 years from now, you need to read this book. For Lief writes about death as something happening right now to each and every one of us. With the aid of practical examples from her own life, skillful exercises, and most important, with her gentle, fearless eloquence, she not only captures the sad and sweet poignancy of endings and transitions, but helps us become intimate with the dying process as both something complex and profoundly simple.”


Frank Ostaseski, Founder, Zen Hospice Project, Berkeley CA

“I just finished Judith’s new book Making Friends with Death. Congratulations on publishing such a useful book by an author who clearly speaks from personal authority. Judith has done an artful job of applying the wisdom of Buddhist teachings to the everyday, practical realities of coping with death. The book is brilliantly reflective of the simplicity she advocates in being with the dying. It is honest, unpretentious and highly accessible. The suggested practices are perfectly ordinary yet capable of opening us to the depth of our being. I recommend it to anyone accompanying the dying. We will certainly include it on our website as in invaluable resource for caregivers.”


Napra Review May/June 2001

“Meditations are usually written to aid in creative visualization, unlock some hidden power or talent, gain a greater sense of God, or affirm one’s own holiness. But to meditate on death—that final, inevitable reckoning that we will all have to face someday? Lief’s message, in part, is that death is scary because we’re not really living, not really paying attention. Our fear of death is a multi-layered affair, typically ignored in our attempts to cram every available moment with the completion or pursuit of a goal, and only engaged consciously when we’re faced with a terminal illness or in imminent danger. She writes beautifully, and covers a lot in 180 pages: how to be with someone who’s dying (including what not to do), how to face your own death, and how to allow an awareness of your own mortality to inform your life. Peppered with useful and startling meditations as well as wise reminders, this is a thoughtful approach to a difficult aspect of living.” – TJE


Mary Moore—Spiritual Care Program

“As I read the concluding sentence of this book I thought for at least the tenth time–this is a fabulous book. It is a down to earth and delightfully gutsy look at our relationship to our own death and that of others. There is directness and humor in the presentation of basic Buddhist understanding that is extremely refreshing. When exploring our strategies for hope and fear Lief comments, “like used car salesmen doctoring cars, we putty over our cracks and flaws, repaint and try to pass ourselves off as solid. Instead of creating an aura of phony invulnerability it would be better to relate with our genuine vulnerability and uncertainty.” Lief strips away the phoniness which can mar our ability to be present with the dying and warns us not try and smooth death over and create a gooey cloying cocoon, “creating a peaceful atmosphere artificially by glossing over our fears and suppressing anything unpleasant does not work. That is not truly peaceful, it is avoiding reality.

“Author Judith Lief is a well-known Buddhist teacher and former dean Naropa University in Colorado. We will all find ourselves somewhere in the chapter on compassion where Lief encourages us to explore the tricky and sticky bits that color our efforts to be useful. Is our motivation tainted by guilt, a desire to be seen to be useful, a wish to fix or a wish to be create the correct environment? As well as these rather direct home truths, Lief is clear and helpful about how we can move forward. Practical exercises and meditations are offered for deepening awareness, appreciation of change and cultivating kindness. I would question whether readers really do work with exercises that are contained in books or simply gloss over them and read on. If we wish arrive at the place of understanding that Lief writes from, then spiritual practice is essential. This small and practical book forms a good basis for reflection and practice in a way that can only to strengthen our ability to make friends with death and be with the dying.” Editorial Review

“One of the best ways to live a vibrant life is to stay closely connected to death, according to Buddhist teacher Judith Lief in Making Friends with Death. Drawing heavily from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lief specializes in interpreting the paradoxical Buddhist teachings surrounding death, making them understandable to Western sensibility. In fact, she modeled her cleanly written book after her highly popular course “The Psychology of Birth and Death” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, starting with theory, then meditation practice, then practical application.

“In the opening section, Lief’s insights are plentiful, showing readers how we all experience daily reminders of birth and death in the form of routine transitions, or helping readers examine the ways they hold death at a distance either though false reverence or media-driven numbness. At the end of every chapter, she offers contemplative exercises, such as pondering the mystery of birth and death or paying attention to one’s breath and noticing the turning point between inhale and exhale. When she moves into the middle section on “Mindfulness Meditation,” her teaching experience shines through as she explains how to understand and then meditate upon the Buddhist virtues of simplicity, acceptance, kindness, and compassion. In the final chapters, she shows how the theory and meditation can be applied toward taking care of someone who is dying. But don’t be misled–this is really a book for everyone who wants to be more fully immersed in living, not just those who are tending the terminally ill. As Lief points out, “cultivating an awareness of death is at the same time cultivating an awareness of life. We are reconnecting with the spirit of actually living a life.” — Gail Hudson


The Shambhala Sun Magazine – Robert Hirschfeld, September 2001

So that the Journey Ends Well [Excerpted from dual review of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders by Ann Cason and Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality by Judith L. Lief]

… In its own way Judith Lief’s Making Friends with Death is also a manual – a manual on how to die, how to relate to dying and death, how to open up to the stages beyond death. Just as Cason has worked for many years with the aging, Lief has worked for many years with the dying. A student (like Cason) of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she finds his phrase “one death” helpful in her work. “One death,” as she understands it, means “that the way we connect with the person who is dying is through our shared experience of loss and death.”

Lief’s book is also a weave of stories, insights, advice, Buddhism and humor. (Of scientifically fixated doctors, Lief writes, “In their battle with death, they leave no tube uninserted.”) Most chapters end with exercises for the readers that range from observing one’s breath to contemplating and appreciating death. In the Tibetan tradition, Lief explains, at the time of death, we are just at the beginning of the journey that starts when this life is over and ends when out next life has begun.”

All of these elements come together in one story. Sandra Jishu Holmes, Zen priest and wife of Roshi Bernie Glassman, has died of a heart attack in New Mexico. The body arrives in a plastic bag (Lief removes a name tag from her toe), is washed, clothed in the dead teacher’s teaching robes, and lifted into her coffin. “Once she is in place., flowers and herbs are added, and the preparation is complete”, Lief writes, “Nothing needs to be said. Nothing can be said. It is too simple for words.” In the stark unzipping of that plastic bag, in the tender laying on of water, herbs, hands, Lief synopsizes the diverse facts of death, and the nature of the mourner’s work.

Disclaimer: Use of the information and data is to bring awareness of death and dying. Spirare does not own the information or profit from its use. Source & Photo: Judith Lief


Words of Inspiration

"Educating people on death and dying, and reducing their fear of death is a giving of fearlessness."
Venerable Wuling

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“The fear of death comes from limited awareness.”   Deepak Chopra

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