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Loving and Letting Go at the Zen Hospice Project

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A hospice volunteer shares what she's learned about letting go.

In a beautiful Victorian on a hill in San Francisco, there is a woman lying in bed under a yellow patchwork quilt. She’s been in this light-filled, high-ceilinged room for weeks with a growing tumor now the size of a large melon in her belly. She does not speak English; I do not speak her language. I sit at her bedside.  We gaze at each other, her deep-set eyes open and direct. Sometimes she speaks to me in her language, sometimes I speak to her in mine, and sometimes we both say, “I don’t understand” (one of her few English phrases). Sometimes we smile at each other, sometimes we hold hands, sometimes I feed her, sometimes I help a nurse clean her and change her gown. Mostly I just sit with her.  I don’t know her stories and she doesn’t know mine. And yet each week as I sit with her, I feel a deep sense of intimacy, a shared humanity that connects us in quiet presence.

I’m a volunteer caregiver at Zen Hospice Project’s Guest House in San Francisco. Every Saturday from 9am-2pm I spend time with people who are nearing their death. Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) provides mindful and compassionate end-of-life care at its six-bed residential Guest House and the 60-bed palliative care/hospice wing of the city’s Laguna Honda Hospital. ZHP is an internationally respected, pioneering hospice care provider grounded in secular contemplative practices. 

As part of ZHP’s volunteer caregiver program, my colleagues and I have gone through a 40+-hour training, followed by a commitment to serve at one 5-hour shift every week for a year. Volunteers are trained to be a compassionate presence for patients and their families, and also for our personal selves and other caregivers, acknowledging the interconnection of our common human experience. We volunteers serve in a variety of ways… mostly we sit with mindful and compassionate acceptance at the bedside, simply being with people in their own unique process of letting go of life.

Sitting quietly with a resident, often my story drops away and I just am and we are together in the moment. (We call patients at the Guest House “residents” because they are living there, even as they are dying.) I watch my mind do its little human dance of swirling thoughts and emotions, judgments and projections, and impulses to get lost in glossy distractions. As I sit I become less identified with all that chatter and more tuned in to this moment of reality, this intimate moment of real life. I am grateful for those times. All my worries, the acute and the petty, can lose their intensity and just melt into a deeper sense of the underlying interconnectivity of life happening right NOW. Many times tears spring to my eyes as I’m overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment, even when there is pain and struggle. My heart swells with gratitude, awe and deep care for this particular person I’m sitting with, for myself, and for all beings. The beauty and awfulness of living are all here at all times, blending together into the enormous experience of life and death. 

Today the Guest House was awash in deep emotion as two people were actively dying. One of them was a phenomenal, well-loved powerhouse of a man who started to decline dramatically last night. This morning I sat quietly with him for a while as he lay unconscious before a large contingent of his loved ones arrived to celebrate him and say goodbye. Every breath was an obvious effort; his once-burly body, now gaunt and nearly transparent, strained with each inhalation. His cloudy eyes were half open and fixed. Bright sunlight and a view of lush green treetops through the tall windows facing him went unseen by those motionless eyes. In the long pauses between each arduous breath he truly appeared dead, and yet his body continued its lifelong work of inhaling and exhaling. As I sat with him, there was a palpable sense of his life and his death simultaneously present, his transition so close that the two distinct states blurred. I stayed present with him, marveling at this observation, and aware of the life and death in my own body. I kissed the top of his head as I said goodbye and wished him well in whatever lay ahead for him.  Then his wife, many weeping friends and relatives, and even two small dogs began their own goodbyes. 

The other resident deep in the process of letting go today was the woman who doesn’t speak English. Each day that I’ve seen her over the past weeks, her body has become tinier as her tumor has become larger. The emerging bones in her face reveal a beauty that shines through the illness. She is diminutive yet not emaciated - a soft tiny dumpling of a woman with beautiful, hollowed eyes and cheekbones. Today her devoted daughter held her, talking and singing to her in their language, their faces close together, the yellow patchwork quilt glowing on the sunlit bed. The powerful loving bond between them creating a tangible testament to all the stories of their relationship that I do not know. The daughter and I hug too and she weeps, her tears unstoppable. I want to stay with both of them, to be there when the woman I’ve spent so much time with in loving silence finally passes; yet my shift has ended and part of my work there is to love and let go. 

As I leave the Zen Hospice Guest House, my heart is still tethered to the dying two and their loved ones, and to the nurses and volunteers I work with, and to the other residents - current and past, and to the gorgeous old house itself. I walk downhill on the tree-lined street and this connection expands further to my own friends and family, to this city and beyond. Loving and letting go in this intimacy with life and death.

Written by Celeyce Matthews for Zen Hospice Project and Legacy.com. Learn more about how Zen Hospice Project is helping to change the experience of dying.