holding hands

It’s been a long while since I’ve written here. An extremely traumatic family tragedy happened very unexpectedly last month and I’ve been overwhelmed with the ongoing impact. Although I cultivate an active awareness of death and loss, experiencing this sudden and very traumatic death of a loved one has sent me reeling. My practice is tremendously helpful but I’ve been deeply immersed in what bell hook’s calls “a burning of the heart.” I’m not ready to write about that yet but I’m starting to pick up the threads of my life, including returning to my hospice shift after missing 5 weeks. I feel ready to begin writing about that again.

This Saturday upon arriving at the Guest House for my morning shift, I unexpectedly got hit with another wave of grief about my recent loss. It was so heavy and overwhelming I wasn’t sure if I could actually do my shift. I’m at a stage in my grieving that resembles the early stage of recovering from the flu – you start to feel better so you get up to go do normal life stuff, only to get slammed down by exhaustion and sickness again. My grief is like that right now, I have to move slower than I think and give myself the space to retreat suddenly if needed. I sat in the stately and peaceful Great Room thinking about just going home, the idea of being with residents seemed impossible. I allowed myself to sit quietly for a long time, then talked with my volunteer shift-mate, and cried a little more (I’m so tired of crying).  After this, I felt refreshed enough to decide to check in upstairs and see how it felt up there. I set one foot on the floor upstairs and the nurse immediately asked me to sit with one of the two 99 year old women residents who was in pain and very agitated.

I’d had a tiny bit of interaction with “R” the previous week and she was polite, sweet and very alert, reading the newspaper in bed. This day she was in pain, eyes closed, and nearly hyperventilating with anxiety. As I pulled up a chair next to her bed, she asked in a papery whisper for me to hold her hand. I gently held her delicate and ice-cold hand in both of mine and deliberately slowed down my breathing. “The pain, the pain…” she whimpered, “I want this to be over, I want to be done.” In a quiet voice I acknowledged her suffering and assured her that I was with her and that the pain meds she’d just received would kick in soon. I suggested she try to slow down her breathing, and to inhale comfort and warmth, and with her exhale release into the pain. I could see her focus on this task and deliberately slow her breath; I breathed with her. Her eyes remained closed but I could feel her with me as she struggled to be with the pain and her fear of it. We sat together through cycles of pain and anxiety overwhelming her, and then her relaxing more peacefully into it. Gently, and with lots of quiet space in between, I encouraged her to return to that breathing practice and softly praised her for her efforts. Eventually, she relaxed more completely as the meds took effect and she finally drifted into a peaceful sleep.

For another hour or so, I silently sent her metta as I continued to hold her now-warmed hand in mine.  My well-wishes became: “May you easefully let go when you are ready,” although I know that is beyond my control, and probably hers too.  I could feel my life pulsing in her hand with her own waning but distinct life, and I marveled at this unique and heartful intimacy. It was only later that I learned that R had traveled all over the world and even knew many celebrities.  And then, after her 99 years of living, we two held hands knowing only our shared humanity.

This time with R, a deep meditation of focused presence, connection and care, cleansed and quieted me. I was grateful for our moment of life together; this intimacy served us both. My heart further broadened by grief, was at ease for the moment with the ongoing love and loss of life.