Caring for people who are dying can be an intense, intimate, and deeply alive experience. It often challenges our most basic beliefs. It is a journey of continuous discovery, requiring courage and flexibility. We learn to open, take risks, and forgive constantly. Taken as a practice of awareness, it can reveal both our deep clinging and our capacity to embrace another person’s suffering as our own. The following excerpt from an article by Paramanada in Dharma Life magazine illustrates the beauty and complexity of the experience of working with the dying and bereaved.
In my time as a volunteer I never felt that I was up to the task of caring for the dying. I was not good at making small talk. I never found the right words. The platitudes you resort to when visiting a friend in hospital – ‘don’t worry, you’ll be back on your feet in no time’ – are inappropriate in a hospice. I was most comfortable <http://nelsonhospice.org/wp-content/uploads/dharma_life.jpg” alt=”” width=”197″ height=”260″ align=”right” hspace=”7″ vspace=”7″ />with those very close to death. Between life and death, they existed in a twilight world, drifting in and out of consciousness. Sitting without words, holding an emaciated hand, listening to the rasping breath. I found this situation easy to stay with.
I would try to let go into my own breath, feeling that every time I breathed out I should not expect to breathe in again. I tried to hold a sense of loving kindness, accepting the person I was with completely. I felt that if I could breathe out completely it might somehow be a little easier for the person whose hand I was holding to die. When I sat with the dying in this way I also knew that my experience was highly subjective. It struck me again and again that even in such close proximity, death remains completely hidden. As the philosopher Martin Heiddeger said: ‘Death is not an experience’.
I never felt completely at ease as a volunteer. What do you say to someone when they have moved closer to death every time you see them? And not just in the abstract sense that we all are moving in that same direction, but in the very immediate sense – that they are losing control of their body, and their life force is ebbing away day by day. Very few clients seemed to want to talk about death, at least to me. More often they wanted to talk about their lives. All too often they had bad feelings towards their families or others who they felt had let them down in one way or other.
It is true that some people become beautiful in death, they come to a place of what can only be termed grace
– but this is not as common as some of the recent literature on dying and the hospice movement imply. Volunteers and members of staff felt a strong desire that the dying person should have the best possible death. In nearly all the cases I witnessed this was indeed true, as the hospice was a caring and warm place. However I did not often witness a spiritual transformation. It is hard to know what is going on with someone as they draw near to death: many are heavily medicated and confused. I was often amazed by the acceptance of those facing death, but I wonder if that was the result of a natural, in-built reaction to the process of dying.
Among the volunteers I saw a desire to ascribe this acceptance to some spiritual insight, but I think this had more to do with the needs of those attending than the experience of the dying person. I became increasingly uneasy about the New Age image of a good, even a redemptive death. We all need to make death seem OK.
A year after I finished working at the hospice I was asked to take part in a practice day for present and former volunteers. I was given a short slot to say a few words and lead a brief meditation. I was pleased to be asked, as I have great admiration for the volunteers and staff.
I made two points. Firstly, no matter how closely one has been in contact with death, through the support and witnessing of others, death remains a mystery – something unknowable – and perhaps this remains true even at our own death. Secondly, and more importantly, even a ‘good’ death does not and should not be understood as making up for a life that has been unhappy or selfish. It does not put right the appalling neglect of society towards many of its less fortunate citizens (many of the people that came to the hospice were homeless or living in awful situations). Nor does it make up for a life that has not been well lived.
Looking back, I think I became a hospice volunteer because I wanted to face the reality of death, and the fact that I will die. I left the work no wiser about the nature of death, but perhaps with a little more resolution to try to live my life with kindness and courage.
– By Paramanada From issue # 15 of Dharma Life
Loving kindness as a foundation of hospice work shows us that the smallest acts performed with love bring greater happiness and success then those performed with indifference or out of a sense of duty. It’s not so much who you are or what you know but how you are that counts . True compassion arises from an understanding that suffering is a universal experience. This awareness motivates us to give the best possible service to all regardless of their beliefs or affiliations.
We strive to be open, non-judgmental and equitable to everyone. Understanding that individuals exist in a state of interconnectedness as part of a larger community. In this context we share responsibility for the well being of other members of our community. This is what motivates us to use our training and experience for hospice work and to collaborate and promote teamwork. We are committed to the empowerment of the patient their loved ones and the community as a whole.
You can join us in this work based in loving kindness in several meaningful ways. You may choose to volunteer , to work directly with the dying or bereaved or to help in theEast Shore or Nelson communities.
You may also wish to become part of this team through your financial contribution, which allows the caring, compassionate work of hospice to continue.
Please contact us to explore the possibilities.
“Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.”