My friend’s eyes grew three sizes bigger.
You’re going to do what? she asked in disbelief.
Paul and I are applying to become hospice volunteers, I answered.
Do you have any idea what you’re getting into? The work is draining and highly demanding, she continued. It’ll consume you.
Have you ever worked with hospice patients? I knew she hadn’t; yet, like many others who believed themselves to be excellent armchair coaches, she thought she should advise me. I feel it will be a special time of bonding and learning lessons for living.
Well, I can think of other industries in which I’d rather work. We’ll all die soon enough. Why would you want to be part of that time in a stranger’s life? It’s nothing but sadness, negativity, and drama. No, thank you! You would have to drag me to get me to even talk about death, let alone try to cheer up dying people.
When questioned about why I have chosen to volunteer with hospice patients, my heart and mind know that the dying have much to share. They are also highly authentic. Since I’m drawn to write and speak to end-of-life experiences, offering quiet presence to a dying person and family feels right. As a witness, I can take on another’s suffering so that space is made available for Source to do what is needed. It is a way for me to offer love, compassion, and service.
Yet, I did ponder this conversation for some time. As humans, we are constantly making assumptions, resulting in tightening our hearts. For example, when people make a statement that creates a question or intimidates us, we quickly think something is wrong with that person or that we don’t have the whole story. Judging is automatic. Egos must fill voids with something…anything, and that’s how misinterpretations become the norm. Anything outside of the morés of a culture creates fear, and choosing to be around dying people and their families is a choice involving an open heart.
Another assumption from this dialogue is that it is difficult enough to bear the suffering of a family member, but absolutely insane to take on the suffering of a stranger. What possible good could come of it? Self-centered, we can’t imagine opening our heart to a stranger who is suffering. Aren’t we pressed for time? Aren’t we thinking of too many things already? Aren’t we underqualified to take on such suffering?
There is a fear that talking about death will bring it closer to us. If we don’t talk about it, then it’s not happening. Believed not to be open for public or private discussion, death presumably lurks in the darkness of our lives. Yet it accompanies us in broad daylight. Take breathing, for example. Each breath that is birthed in us comes automatically without thought. We trust that it will be there, and it is. Each exhale of the breath is death to that stream of air. “Normal respiration rates for an adult person at rest range from 12-16 breaths per minute.” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/ We experience the cycle of life and death of a breath at least twelve times in each minute—normality at its best. The predictable cycle of life and death is also demonstrated in deciduous trees. Leaves are birthed in stages from buds to flowers to leaves, only to change colors and fall to the ground months later. We can teach children about the ordinary life and death cycle when we care for a pet well into its declining years. Observing these cycles is a natural part of our growth. Death, itself, is instinctive and commonplace. It is with us from our birth.
Another assumption from the dialogue is that we go to the dying and their families to “cheer them up.” We feel that we must do something and we’re uncomfortable when we’re not. Actually, we just need to “be,” as witnesses, holding space for the family and loved one to come together, to be transformed in gratitude, forgiveness, and love.
“I have been with a thousand dying people. The tragedy I’ve witnessed is not that life is impermanent or sometimes cut short, but that we often only see in hindsight what really matters. Sitting with others on the precipice of death offers us a view that is an extraordinary gift…It reveals both the precarious and precious nature of our life. It illuminates what is most important and reminds us that we don’t have time to waste.”
~Frank Ostaseski, “The Heart of the Matter” Workshop; Director of Metta Institute, Sausalito, CA.
Death is a legacy to our families, communities, and universe, and we vehemently reject it until we are cornered. Then, ranting and raving, we fear loss of control, the anonymity behind our labels, and expiration of time to pursue unfinished business.
Indeed, there is a huge, heavy elephant in the room, and all along we have denied it. Saying Yes, please! we turn toward death, talk about it, and feel that it is a natural part of our existence. In doing so, we accept this part of our life cycle. Overcoming strangled hearts and voices, we approach the elephant in the room, partner with it, and welcome the gift of transformation to our higher Self. We know who we are and arrive where we started. Home feels so good.
Inwardly speaking: Look for moments that the universe shares the life to death cycle. Breathe steadily and easily as you observe these moments, remembering that this cycle is a gift that helps prepare us to view death as a participant, rather than as a victim.
© 2015 Barbara L. Krause