Being a hospice worker/volunteer can be rather like having a near-death experience in slow motion. Because one is continuously speaking with and interacting with people who are very sick and preparing to die and/or are experiencing grief, there are many mystical things that come into ones sphere. If you are open to it, your spiritual life can expand in ways you would never have imagined. Below are some ways your spiritual life can transform and expand.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells a story that reminds us that death comes perched on our shoulder when we are born into this world. Death lives alongside us throughout our lives. However, in our materially centered culture, we tend to lose sight of this. Even our doctors and healthcare professionals are trained to keep people alive at all costs. Consider how much more gracious our lives might be if we could simply invite death back into our lives and our living rooms, recognizing that every day is precious - life is a true gift - and we never know when we might be called and welcomed back to our real home on the other side.
We modern Americans tend to focus most of our time on doing things rather than honoring the gift of simply being. At the end of life, however, a person usually has to shift from doing to being as he or she gradually prepares for death. It can be extremely helpful if this person has someone to simply be with them, listen attentively to them, and encourage them along the way. They can hold space for the suffering and pain, as well as the joy, exuberance, and curiosity that is often part of the mix. Not only is this a wonderful gift to the dying, but it can also be one of the greatest gifts of a lifetime to be the one who sits with, listens to, and witnesses to the person who’s preparing to make their final transition.
Hospice work helps one tune into one’s heart more, and places one’s analytical mind to the background. This happens especially because we sit with people a lot. We find ourselves encouraged to listen attentively to the one we happen to be with. Sometimes there are no words, so one needs to pick up on other cues - body language, eye movements, and the like. Sometimes the words spoken are quite unexpected or not one’s kind of language, so it stretches one’s worldview. This experience of truly being present with another human being in the fullness of who they are at that moment encourages us to go deeper and listen harder, to pay more attention and speak or chatter less.
Much of hospice work turns out to be intuitive. There is no manual on how to work with different situations and people. Everyone is different, and every death - and period leading up to it - is unique. One often finds that one needs to fly by the seat of one’s pants. So there is much gut reaction that needs to be relied upon. And it’s a bit like meditation, the more you do it, the more it grows. The more you learn to rely on your gut responses, the more your intuition grows. By the way, I invite you to develop a meditation practice for yourself anytime - it will grow your soul for sure, in a different but somewhat similar way as hospice work does.
Here’s a magical story for this one: Sometimes the dying can bless you with the most surprising wisdom. One day, I was visiting a gracious woman who was suffering from cancer and dementia. She had been a beautician most of her long life. It was difficult to believe that this lovely woman had dementia because she could keep up with our conversations so easily with grace. When bringing up the topic of death with her as a way to open the conversation, she let me know indirectly through her loving family that she did not want to talk about death. However, on this same day that we were visiting, she popped out with the words, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken; it’s a great death if you don’t stiffen.” The first half of this statement is a line from an old song, but the last half I’ve never been able to locate. What inspiration - from a woman facing her own death!
Working with hospice you learn that it’s best to remain flexible, not rigid. Some days, you have all of your day planned out to visit certain people. But then, when the day comes around, you find that someone has died, another is not feeling up to a visit, and the like. Or sometimes you would need to add a visit with someone who urgently needed a visit that day. So, you learn to shift your plans accordingly. In this way, you are constantly prodded to maintain a rather loose hold on your plans and schedule. Probably not a poor way to lead your life! After all, don’t they say that it’s the interruptions in life that actually make up our lives?
The power of nonjudgmental, unconditional love speaks volumes at the time that death draws near. Rather than expressing judgment and critical thinking as our culture tends to do, the end of life is a time to release judgment and share pure, unadulterated love with the one who is reviewing his or her life one last time. There is a beautiful Hawaiian practice called Ho’oponopono that we can use at times like these - or anytime love and forgiveness are required, for that matter. The following four statements are to be repeated, in any order. You usually repeat them to and for yourself, but you can do so in the context of relationships with others, too: “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.”
While on my way to Hawaii once, I ran into a friend who was also traveling to the Big Island. He was going back to care for his ailing mother on hospice. He shared with me that an emergency care physician had shared the following four clues with him when she found out that he was caring for his dying mother:
- You are on a severe learning curve
- No one can predict what will happen - despite many who think they can.
- You are under more stress than you think you are; and
- You must do things to take care of your stress, both for you and for the sake of your mother who you’re caring for.
Without a doubt, the biggest lesson one learns while doing hospice work is that there is so much more than meets the eye. This is all the more powerful a lesson because of the way our culture emphasizes physical science. We’ve come to believe that unless you can see, touch, hear, or taste something, it’s not real. Most likely, if you were to do hospice work for a year, that belief would no longer hold true for you after the year. After being a hospice volunteer or worker for a year, your perspective on life is likely to change significantly. At its very root, life is a mystery. Therefore, the moments of birth and death are particularly shrouded in mystery.
For example, the days around the birth of my daughter were days when I felt like I was in some kind of altered or luminous space. Everything looked and felt a little different from what it normally does, especially the rooms in the hospital in which I gave birth. In the same vein, when a person is preparing to die, they can sometimes see, feel, and know things that they would not see, feel, or know at a more “normal” time in their lives.
Probably the most important thing one learns through doing hospice work is that death is nothing to fear. We have all come to earth from the other side - the Great Beyond - and that’s where we return at the time of death. It is graduation time, a celebration and reunion of sorts. Some have even likened it to sexual union. Betty Eadie says in her book that when she finally reached the great Light that was at the end of the tunnel - in her near death experience - she realized that it was Jesus, and when she reached him and began to embrace him, she felt an utter explosion of love, a kind of love she had never experienced on earth; and she found herself saying “I’m home, I’m home, I’m finally home!”
Let’s not let our culture dictate how we feel about death. Death is a home-going, a time to look forward to, with joy, appreciation, and great anticipation.
The above material hopefully has help you see how your spiritual life can greatly expand through the hospice experience. Let’s all take the time and energy to dive deeper into our spiritual lives and remember the interconnectedness of all life, and of death. As we come to lessen our fear around death and become more comfortable with the mystery of life itself, we will open up the possibility for a deeper and richer, more meaningful life - as well as a good, well-prepared for death.
Here’s some wonderful ancient wisdom for us as we ponder the fear of death:
Fear knocked at the door.
No one was there.
More expert advice about Aging and Longevity
Photo Credits: © Stefan Körber - Fotolia.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com