Lessons for the Living
People learned what I was doing when I would decline an invitation to do something on a Thursday night. When they asked why I couldn’t come, and I responded with “I’ll be doing my hospice shift then,” my explanation was generally met with silence.
2011 First Place Award-Winner in the Spirituality: Inspirational
—-Category International Book Awards
2011 Best Buddhist Writing of 2011
2010 London Book Festival Grand Prize Winner, Best —-International Book
2010 London Book Festival Best International Inspirational Book
2009 Top Books of the Year, MyShelf.com
2009 Top Books of the Year, Cyrus Webb Conversations Book Club,
People learned what I was doing when I would decline an invitation to do something on a Thursday night. When they asked why I couldn’t come, and I responded with “I’ll be doing my hospice shift then,” my explanation was generally met with silence. To ask why I was choosing to be with people who were dying would draw attention to the possibility that my life might not be very long. Everyone knew the cancer had spread, and most people were afraid to ask how I was doing. Few were ready to discuss the real possibility that they might be losing me.
But there were some people who did want to know about my hospice experiences. We usually went off in a corner alone or met somewhere privately. I explained that hospice isn’t a place; it’s a state of mind, a willingness to compassionately accompany someone on their final journey, not judgmentally, but as a friend who was willing to hold one’s hand, cry, or just witness the end of life. As I walked that path with more than two-hundred people, they became friends who led me into events so raw, so germane to being human; they reflected what’s important in life more than could countless books and workshops. I watched the joy of a woman whose mouth was wired closed as she smelled a fragrant slice of apple and I learned to accept what’s possible rather than what’s desired. I sat with a musician who was listening for the last time to a Gregg concerto and I understood the beauty of things that had no words. As I played Chutes and Ladders with a child, I felt grief for the first time in my life and cried as he told me he knew this would be our last game.
Although every one of these people who have taught me so much, my hospice teachers, has died, this isn’t a book about death. It’s a blueprint for living. I participated in events so powerful they grabbed me and said, “Listen, this is important.” When I paid attention, I felt a change. It was as if every time I left the bedside of a patient, I stepped into the crispness of a fall morning. Lucky people experience these transforming moments a few times throughout their lives. I feel so fortunate to be experiencing these spiritual moments almost weekly for the past six years.
Sometimes the lessons had the impact of a sledgehammer, as when I was alone, holding a man with AIDS in my arms as he took his last breath. Other times, it was more subtle; after cradling a child for four hours I realized he had synched his breathing with mine. From this intimacy with death came lessons, regardless if the teacher was six months old or someone who had witnessed the most important events of the last century. They unfolded when I allowed myself to develop a connectedness with the person I served—a willingness to see her or him as if it was I who were dying.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a simple method anyone can use to experience connectiveness, regardless of the nature or intensity of their spirituality. He says to think of each person as if he or she is your mother, who nurtured and protected you as long as she could. How can you do anything cruel to your mother? How can you not help her when she needs you? When I embraced Thich Nhat Hahn’s idea and viewed my patient’s journey as my own, the frightening image of death was transformed into a great teacher.
Most of the lessons I write about in this book, such as the power of forgiveness, may have sounded mundane to me until I saw the profound consequences it had for a lonely man whose last wish was to be forgiven by his sister. Others, such as the importance of kindness, may have sounded like a cliché to me, until I witnessed how a simple act infused with it overcame a woman’s lifetime of misery and self-loathing. The lessons were immediate, often coming like a lightning strike. Understanding them was a different story. Some I quickly understood, but others alluded me, either because I needed to experience them as part of my own life or I because their acceptance would have shattered my ego. But just as a stubborn puppy pulls on your pants leg until you acknowledge it, they remained just under my consciousness until I was ready for them. Despite trying to group them into some type of logical order for this book such as, understanding, coping and resolving, I couldn’t. The lessons refused to be bound by any type of artificial parameters. What I thought could be placed in understanding, squeezed out into coping, and sometimes into resolving. The same thing happened with those lessons I thought could be placed in coping and resolving. I finally realized I was looking through a diamond, with each facet showing parts of all others. Each lesson therefore stands alone, although is connected to every other one.