A rough, after-work ramble, no grammar corrections or editing (maybe I’ll get to that later):
Hospice work for me is being present, observing, attuning, attaching, loving, and then letting go.
One of the hardest situations for me that I encounter at work happened this weekend. Giving intense care for the past 24 out of 48 hours to someone actively dying and their family – being very attuned, involved, intimate with them, witnessing the subtle changes of the body shutting down and the love and grief of the family, tending to all of them. And then after this dense, meaningful time together my last shift of the weekend is over and it’s time to go home and I won’t be back for several days – knowing this person will probably die within hours. It’s so hard to leave, right at the end, I want to stay and continue my care until completion of this person’s life that I have been so intensely and uniquely involved in. I am attached to the dying person, to their family and to my co-workers in this warm cocoon of care that the Guest House is. But I let go, I say goodbye, many hugs and wet eyes and gratitude and well-wishes. And I hand off the baton to the next shift and walk out the door into the night.
Living and dying go on and on – it’s like a river I step in and out of – although of course it’s everywhere all the time, it’s all of us, but it is more explicit and raw and bare at hospice. I say this all the time but it is such deeply fulfilling work to be right in the heart of someone’s last time on earth. I meet them where they are and give them the best care I can and then they go. Impermanence in all its beauty, with all its warts, complete and incomplete, in process, over and over again.
Massive, rotting cancer wound and a still-lovely face and hands, the complexity of family love around her; I understand this quote so well:
“Beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love.”
(Quote from Rabindranath Tagore.)
I’ve been at Zen Hospice Project’s Guest House for 3 years now. I’ve given direct care to about 120 people in their last weeks and days of life. I’ve been bedside with 11 people as they took their final breath. I’ve bathed about 20 dead bodies. I’ve lead about 15 death rituals.
There is the vomit, the diarrhea, the rotting wounds, the pain, the turmoil, the challenging family dynamics, the grief, the fear. And there is the love. The love, the love, the love. The tenderness, the intimacy, the humor, the beauty, the compassion, the transformation, the honesty, the radical acceptance, the profound human connection, and the love. It is an immense honor to be with it all. I am deeply nourished by this work.
I have always found meaningful work in the world, but never have I felt with such passion and clarity that I have found my calling as I do caring for people at the end of life. I am filled with gratitude.
I’m taking a break from formal published writings – busy semester. Here instead is an after work ramble-release:
The CD player in my car is old and broken, and the only way I can listen to music in my car is on the radio. So I could only blast 70s classic rock, pop and disco on the radio on my way home tonight after an intense day at work. There’s something so sublime about the random radio tune that I haven’t thought of in years, decades even, a song so cheesy and evocative of an era, a song so bad that it can only be appreciated, beyond irony, after a weekend of caring for a woman who’s had so much pain she had to be palliatively sedated and is actively dying and having seizures all day, hands, feet and mouth turning purple, and spending hours talking with a man unable to accept that he can no longer get out of bed and helping him try many times so he can feel for himself his new limitation, feeling his body shaking and unbalanced, feeling his frustration and despair and denial, and listening to the Threshold Choir sing achingly tender songs to a dying woman and her family, and tending to the other residents in their own mortal processes, and all the running up and down stairs, and my toes cramping from being on my feet all weekend… and then this song on the radio, me belting out more lyrics than I knew that I knew of this ridiculous song, and then the ecstasy of the release of the human dramas of the weekend, letting them go with each simplistic lyric I sing out in my raw and slightly off-key voice as I am stuck in traffic on the bridge, the fog in shifting shades of rose and gray being overtaken by the rising dark of night, feeling the gratitude to be of service to people in these harrowing final moments, feeling the beauty and grief and joy and love and acceptance of the full cycle of life – singing this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQmRgFzg0jI
My newest story, and one of my most intense set of experiences being with people at the end of life.
I think this would make Luca very happy (see link below). It was a joy to care for him, and his love for everyone continues to reach out even after his death. Donate if you can!
And hey! It’s my boss Jolene and co-workers Ryan and Tiffany (and a couple glimpses of me when I still had long hair)!
It’s been an intense 3 days at work. O the terrible family dramas, the extreme mental/emotional confusion and agitation, the physical pain and indignities, the agonizing dilemmas (and the sweet quiet moments too). I have no answers, no cures, no fixes for any of it, but I can face all of it directly, engage with it, embrace it with so much deep care and solidarity for our shared plight as human beings. Driving home this evening, I cried with gratitude for this work and for all the things that have happened in my life that have led me here. All the beauty and pain in my own life produced this skill set, strength and love that I get to put to good use every day that I’m at the Guest House. To accompany people in these raw moments of life and death is profoundly fulfilling.
A resident died at the Zen Hospice Guest House the other day who carried many divisive labels of race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin and medical condition. I was aware of all the vitriol, stereotypes, violence and political prejudice that are attached to that person’s body as I tenderly bathed and changed them in their final weeks of life.
I did not get a chance to have any conversations with this person – they spoke another language primarily and they were pretty much unconscious all of the time I was with them. And so I do not know the stories they carried, what experiences they lived through, and yet I knew this person must have faced some very tough times. I found them to be extremely beautiful, even in their emaciated state from illness. Beautiful in their clear and vulnerable humanity and also just in their own unique self and their obvious strength. Aesthetically beautiful too – skin, bone structure, all gorgeous to my eyes.
I often felt a fervent wish that this person had experienced much love and appreciation for their beauty and their humanity. When they seemed somewhat conscious, I would stroke their forehead and call them “beautiful” in their language. In their semi-conscious state they would smile a bit or chuckle sweetly. I hope my love was truly received.
I watched every nurse and volunteer who attended this person give such love and respect to them, people of all kinds of backgrounds. It was deeply heartening to see that love. I am so grateful to experience the very best of humanity in my work.