For me, the most challenging aspects of working in hospice are not what would seem like the obvious issues of confronting illness, fear, death, loss and grief. Those issues definitely are very real and very intense challenges but I’m finding it’s mostly the social issues of basic human interactions that generate the main part of this work for me. Social awkwardness, personality clashes, projection, judgement, crankiness – it all happens here, even at the end of life. People come into hospice care with their full human selves (if they are still conscious) and a lifetime of experiences, habits, viewpoints, philosophies, preferences and attitudes. It seems that some people release some of their troubles at the end of life and enter a phase of gratitude and rich enjoyment of the Now, while others hang on with a clenched fist. I see a wide range of acceptance and resistance, many strategies of living and dying.
And I too bring my whole self, as one of the five precepts of Zen Hospice advises, I am not merely a witness and a caregiver. I notice my reactions, judgments and preferences arise with each person, with each interaction. I notice that I prefer the residents who are friendly and open, and I love to have experiences of communion and connection, even when it is just watching a silly tv show together. But yesterday I sat with two cranky ladies while they smoked in the garden and stared at me with bald appraisal from their wheelchairs. There seemed to be very little that pleased them, despite the efforts and care of the volunteers and staff, and complaining about us was actually what they seemed to be enjoying the most. I had spent a couple of hours that morning walking all over the hills around the Guest House on errands for one of them and I noticed my own feelings of crankiness as my efforts were met with these stony stares. I quietly gave room for my irritation and disgruntlement, as I gave room for theirs. I breathed with my internal reactions, noticing my impulses to anxiously placate or make biting remark or run away, but instead I just sat quietly with them. Three cranky ladies sitting in the garden together.
I don’t know all the experiences that led these women to this place and this attitude, but I do know my own lifetime of disappointments, frustrations and joys, and I feel grateful to practice being with it all. It is not comfortable. It is not warm and fuzzy. But it is real and this is my practice: to embrace everything in myself and outside myself without pushing away, clinging or reacting (including the desire to push away, cling or react). This is another one of the five precepts of Zen Hospice: welcome everything. I’m not quite at a stage of actually welcoming my or others’ unpleasant reactions but I am continually stretching my capacity to simply BE with what is and to find compassion for myself and for other people. Heavy lifting for sure but the ability to meet life head-on, with all its attendant joys and miseries, creates the deep, rich experience of living that I am committed to and helps me be a more engaged and effective person.
Thank you cranky ladies everywhere. May we all be at ease.