Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making an Offering of Gratitude, of Grief, Praise, Loss and Love

At one point in my life i realized that my heart's capacity to hold joy and happiness and love was only as deep as its capacity to hold sorrow. My heart, like a wooden bowl, was being carved out by the realities of life and grief, making my heart a deeper vessel for all kinds of experiences. I could not refuse to feel the sorrow and disappoint without reducing my capacity to hold the depths of love and happiness that were also available in life.

Then, in a dream I saw a bowl, filled with a beautiful silvery  liquid which i understood to be the water of life. The bowl was like a sieve; it was full of holes. A bowl full of holes that held this most precious liquid and could never run dry. I woke up laughing.  I think our hearts are like this bowl. 

Gratitude and praise, grief, love and loss. They seem intertwined.

When we are grateful we are acknowledging someone or something's special qualities. In this way gratitude is a form of praise. When we grieve, we grieve the loss of someone who has added value to our life in ways we have come to appreciate. In this way our grief is also a song of praise.

Anytime we praise a person's qualities we acknowledge their importance to us and their place in the world. We are acknowledging their value and the unique qualities they possess --and foreshadowing the loss we would feel in their absence. So our praise is a song that holds a slender sliver of sadness. Not unlike the joy we feel at the sight of a beautiful flower, even as we hold an awareness that the flower will wither and die. Or the delight and gratitude we feel at the beauty of  fall leaves and a bountiful harvest, even as we know they foretell the coming of winter. We acknowledge preciousness, preciousness in the face of impermanence.

Perhaps each moment we grieve and each time we rejoice in life, or praise the divine, each time we say thank you for the gift of being alive, for seeing beauty, for giving and receiving love, we are also giving voice to that slender sadness that acknowledges, in a balanced way, that all things pass.

We often refer to this balanced response to loss as "letting go". Sogyal Rinpoche once described letting go this way -- I invite you to try it.

Hold your arms out in front of you. Palms up. Imagine you have a precious jewel in the palm of each hand. Close your fingers around the jewel in each hand. Hold it tightly. Tighter.

Now let go.

You might think i am asking you to turn your hand over, open your fingers and let the precious jewel drop to the ground. Ah, such loss.

But instead letting go asks that you keep your palms up and simply open your fingers. What is precious still rests in your hand. Open to the world.

When I do this exercise I like to take time to feel how much tension there is in tightly grasping the jewel. How much energy it takes to hold on so tightly. Ironically, with my fingers closed and grasping i cannot even see the jewel! What is precious is being hidden, even from me.

When I let go by opening my fingers it feels to me I experience myself as making an offering of what I hold to be precious...sharing my grief and my gratitude becomes a sacred act. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Ways We Hold Each Other

    Today I visited with 2 elderly women in a nursing home. One friend has pure white hair and the bluest of blue eyes. Lately when I stop by to see her she is asleep, so i have started leaving her a note so that she will know I have been there and that I am thinking of her.
       This morning she woke up and stretched out her hand. Nothing needed to be said. We very simply held hands. Time passed like a gentle breeze and not a single word was exchanged.
     Her verbal capacities are diminishing and she can barely stay awake, but there was an eloquence in the way our fingers intertwined and the lightness of her touch was ephemeral and solid at the same time. Perhaps it is because the moments when we connect with life are timeless really; never lost or undone. In a way they go on forever. 
        In the year I have known her this was perhaps the most tender and expressive time we've had together. Her hands are very thin now, her skin almost transparent, the bones in her arms more and more defined. But the connection was stronger than it has been when her body and her personality were more vibrant and we depended on conversation to make and sustain connection.
         "I brought you a card today, in case you were sleeping when i got here", I told her after a while.  "Let me do that", she said when i showed her the small envelope, then she carefully slipped the card out of its envelope. She did this slowly, intentionally, as if the moment was special. As if the movement of fingers and the touch of paper, mattered. Not as an action done daily, out of habit, or an activity to be taken for granted.  What has she learned about present moment - living in bed this past year? 
        It was just a small, simple card made in India, light green handmade paper with an embossed peacock on it and a few lines of hello and I am thinking of you, a line about the way people seemed revived by the recent and very welcome rain, a comment on the activity of the birds outside her window, because I know she loves to watch them.
        "Sit down", she said and motioned to the edge of her bed. She read the card very very slowly, stopping several times to raise her eyes and look at me. We'd sit a moment in silence, holding each other with our eyes, resting in each other's eyes. Then she would read the card again and suddenly she'd exhale deeply and drift into sleep.
         I propped a pink pillow between her head and the metal rails of the hospital bed so she would be more comfortable, slipped the card from her hand, set in on her bedside table and went to leave. She opened her eyes again and we exchanged our ritual of blowing each other a kiss as I left.  
         The other elderly woman is blind now and this was just our second meeting. I introduced myself as I stepped into her room, so she wouldn't be startled. I let her know i am a friend of her daughter. She too wants a hand to hold and uses her other hand to run her fingers up and down the length of my arm.
      "Don't let me fall", she says.  "I won't let you fall," I tell her, "You are safe in bed."
      "Where am I", "What do I do now?"  "Where is my mother?" she asks.  I answer and she repeats the questions. She has some dementia and will repeat these phrases again and again, unable to "shift" her attention from these concerns, no matter how many times I answer.  It is kindest to help her "shift" her attention.
        "I heard these songs yesterday," I tell her and sing "When the Saints Go Marching In"  followed by  "Amazing Grace". Not terribly original, but they are what came to mind.  
         "Yes, I know those, sing some more" she says.
          It's not that I have a great singing voice, its simply that our senses are one way in which we receive the world. Touch and sound can fill the void left by this new absence of sight.
          I know she often experiences vertigo, even lying on her back in bed.  If I lift my hand from hers to adjust her blanket she grasps her hands tightly across her chest, as if to hold herself still, fixed in space.
         We hold hands, she listens to the words of the songs and she relaxes. She is not alone. She shares space and time with another human being; a presence that she can both feel and hear.
        It's lovely to know about each others lives, tell our stories and share our personal narratives, but sometimes a rich and precious depth of intimacy is reached in the moments when we very simply hold each others eyes or hands, knowing that nothing else is necessary. The moment is complete and we are not alone.
        I leave the nursing home feeling a stillness at the core of my being that carries me through the day.
        In holding I have been held.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Five Women, Five Stories

       I have been honored to be present with many people towards the end of their life and learned so much from each of them.  I have learned that while many of us wish to die at home, that sometimes is not possible, or even optimal for the comfort of the dying or their families. 
     In my experience what matters most is our alertness to the situation and the quality of our presence. Though death is a solo journey it does not need to be lonely. We can be a comfort. We can cradle each other in powerful ways, dispelling loneliness and fear.
    Our Presence, our thoughtful actions and the moments of intimacy that we share can create an oasis of quiet in the midst of noise, carve out a landscape of peace in raw or discordant places and shape a mysterious beauty that is independent of external conditions.
      I share these brief recollections to honor different aspects of the final journey of each of these women and have changed their names to respect their privacy.
          Ruby’s long white hair was cut short so it wouldn’t tangle as she lay in the hospital bed. Her bright blue eyes were closed but her eyelids flickered when family members discussed calves and fields, goats and rodeos and her fingers flailed briefly at her bed sheets; as if she were a diver, trying to reach the surface of the water.
         Nurses and hospital staff stopped by to see Ruby and her neighbors told tales of the  people she had healed--people with diabetes, or bullet wounds,  broken bones or child fever. Sometimes Ruby moaned and tossed. Her granddaughter bathed her forehead, murmuring  into her ear.
           At the end of Ruby’s life she was encircled by six women. We watched as each breath left her mouth and waited, our own breath suspended with hers, until her lungs swelled and drew in air again. The pauses between Ruby’s exhalations and inhalations grew longer and longer. Finally she left us with a long, soft sigh, her breath passing into the air like a pebble dropped into still water, its ripples gradually fading until the water's surface bears no trace of the stone. Ruby was 89 when she died. Her death, in 1989, was the first that I attended.
         Sita was only 32 yrs. old when she died of breast cancer. I visited her often during the last year of her life. Sometimes we played cards. Sita usually won. We talked and cried and laughed; and talked some more.  One day the hospice nurses advised Sita’s family that she was close to death. She had not had anything to eat or drink eaten for days and she had not  spoken or opened her eyes.  The family began its their traditional preparations. Her brother was called so he would be ready to cut his hair and fast. A local restaurant was called to prepare traditional foods for when the family broke its fast and flowers were gathered.  Sita’s beautiful saris were laid out and a harmonium player was contacted to play chants for her through the night. 
         But three days later Sita was sitting up in her bed playing solitaire when I came to visit. She was upset with her family and she was afraid. “Did you think I was dying too,” she asked again and again. “Are they all waiting for me to die? Are they just tired of me being so sick for so long."
         A month passed and Sita lay quietly in her bed, her shining black hair spread over her pillow. Her mother brushed her hair. She oiled her feet, her legs, her hands. She washed Sita’s body with a damp cloth and changed her clothes. Later, as I offered her sips of cool water through a straw, Sita turned her head on the pillow and looked at me. “I am dying, Rose,” she said, “I’m dying.” I looked into her face, meeting her dark and honest eyes. I knew that only the truth would serve. “I know, Sita, I know. We’re here with you,” I answered softly. 
         Sita’s husband stood on the opposite side of her bed. He grabbed her hand in his,
“Don't die, don’t leave me. Don’t die.” he cried. Sita turned her head quickly and comforted him as the dying so often do, “Don’t worry, Mahesh, I am not dying. I will not die.” 

          Emily died of pneumonia in her early 60’s. It was the disease she prayed for to spare her from the slow deterioration that the progression of her chronic illness would cause. Because of her chronic disease Emily was very aware that she did not have much time. She desperately wanted to be reconciled with her daughter and did mend that relationship as best she could.  In the months before she died Emily became bedridden and almost blind. 
       Because she was such a skilled planner and organizer I suggested Emily work on her funeral plans. She chose green silk pajamas to wear and decided on the flowers that we would lay upon her open casket. She created her own memorial cards and a CD of her favorite music to play at her memorial service and wrote instructions about the food to serve.
        During the last hours of her life Emily was in ICU, attended by friends and family. She had wanted Buddhist prayers whispered in her ear, and they were. Her oxygen was slowly withdrawn, as she had requested in her Advance Directives. When her caregiver of 10 years came to her beside and whispered the Catholic prayers Emily had grown up with into her ear  Emily exhaled once and slipped away.

          Joselyn had lung cancer. She was in her 50’s when she died. Two weeks before her death she attended a retreat on contemplative practices for dying. Joselyn invited her closest friends and family to visit her after the retreat. For several days in a row, as daylight faded  she sat up on the edge of her bed and rang a mindfulness bell to begin and end the short sitting  mediation she wanted to share with those around her. On the third day she died peacefully, just after midnight.

      Ellen was an artist. In her 40’s she was the victim of a crushing car accident that left her in a coma for a week. Friends and family visited; recalling her many talents and her brilliant, curious mind. Some of us sang to her, others stayed quietly at her beside.  Friends gave Ellen's husband a place to stay during the long days of his vigil and they feed him on many levels, bringing him food, sharing stories, tears and laughter and taking turns being at Ellen's bedside as he made the necessary and difficult decision to remove her life support. Ellen's body was washed and tended ritually by the Jewish Burial group, the Chevrah Kedesha, and she was buried by her loved ones. 

  Ruby, Emily and Ellen died in the hospital, surrounded by friends and caregivers. Joselyn died in bed at her sister’s home and Sita died at home too, early on a Saturday morning, and the women of her family strung a necklace of marigolds and calendula for her to wear while another woman chanted and played the harmonium.

There are so many ways to die. 
What do we do when we encounter what many call the Great Mystery? Stumbling over our feelings and fears, we want to be of comfort, but perhaps we do not know what form that comfort might take. Often we wish we could stop death simply by refusing to acknowledge it.
 There are no magic words, no one way we should act. But we can bring a quality of presence to those who are dying, a presence that can offer spacious companionship to them and to their family and friends. A presence that acknowledges our shared humanity and our timeless and unending connection. A presence that gives no fear. 

Meeting the Great Mystery

       Our life is, of course, not separate from our death. Deep in our bones we know that each of us will die.  And still there is grieving and awareness of loss. Still there is fear and wonder. Awe and surprise.  Still there is beauty and struggle and surrender. Still there is mystery.

        Often, in meeting this mystery,  we pull away from those who are dying as if it was dying, and not disease, that was contagious. Far too often those who are dying are medically tended but emotionally and spiritually isolated. Perhaps it is because we are afraid of death. Perhaps we are afraid of the profound intimacy that arises when we truly listen and engage with the dying.Perhaps we are afraid of the grief we will feel when they die.

         For thousands of years humanity has met the mystery of death and the process of dying with ritual, ceremony and spiritual practices. We have met it with medicines and met it with machines. We have met it with denial, fear, busyness and consumerism. We have bargained with death and argued with death. We have tried to buy our way out of dying. Or perhaps we have tried to buy our way into living. No matter what, the mystery remains. 
       Every life and its accompanying death are unique and there is no expert on death but the dying themselves. But our rich history of humane responses to the truth of our mortality tells us that there are compassionate ways to meet this largest of mysteries and create an indestructible Circle of Love and Care.
      We can stand beside those who are dying. We can navigate through the emotions and decisions and actions that need tending. Our presence, compassion, skill and thoughtful attention can support those who are dying as they tend to the final tasks of their lives and attain a sense of peace and wholeness.