I knew, without being told, that he had jumped. It seemed a horrific way to die, but I recoiled at the term “suicide,” with its connotation of an irrational action and a waste of human potential. At age 86, this man suffered from Lewy body dementia, a progressive disease that is a toxic blend of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Given his prognosis, it was hard to view his action as irrational.
“We need another word besides suicide,” noted a mutual friend, “for someone with a terminal illness who chooses not to prolong the suffering of chronic disease in old age.”
Shortly after that conversation, in one of those serendipitous coincidences that leave you breathless, I read an article entitled Sallekhanā is not Suicide. It is one of the readings for the class I’m teaching on how different religions deal with death and dying.
I had never heard of Sallekhanā (sa-lay-ka-na), although it has been around for more than two thousand years. This end-of-life ritual entails the gradual reduction of food and liquids until death occurs.
It is a core practice of the Jain community, a religious tradition that emphasizes non-violence and, like Buddhism, seeks eternal liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. According to Jain texts, the term derives from the words sal (meaning ‘properly’) and lekhana (‘to thin out’). Sallekhanā is viewed as the proper thinning out of the body and its passions.
But it is not for everyone, as there are strict criteria for its use, among them that:
- Death appears imminent from old age or incurable disease.
- One is mentally competent and in “good emotional health” but has freed him/herself from the bodily passions and emotions (e.g., grief, fear, regret, affection, guilt).
- Responsibilities to one’s family have been fulfilled, and permission has been granted by them and by your spiritual “master.”
- One has practiced “fasting” (e.g., no food one day a week) for some time prior to taking the vow of Sallekhanā. After taking the vow, one simply increases the extent of the fasting regimen, with the gradual elimination of food and water.
Jain teaching is quite clear that Sallekhanā is a sacred ritual that is part and parcel of a religious life style. Any self-imposed death that involves violence or impulsive behavior in response to depression, grief, or incurable disease, would be labeled suicide, not Sallekhanā.
Clearly, Sallekhanā does not cover my friend’s decision to jump to his death. But it does bring into sharp focus the fact that, in our current culture, many treat death as something to be to be avoided or delayed if at all possible. Sallekhanā is based on the notion that death is an inexorable and desirable part of a life well lived … that one’s worth as a human being is not measured by the ability to “hang on” in the face of terminal illness and considerable pain.
What word would you use?