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An Article From:

Inquiring Mind, PO Box 9999, North Berkeley Station, Berkeley, CA 94709, USA. 


Stories of Lives
Lived and Now
Ending

AS TOLD BY FRANK OSTASESKI

PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAJA HORNSTEIN
 
 

EDITED By BARBARA GATES

Inspired by a 2500-year-old spiritual tradition, Zen Hospice Project encourages and supports a mutually beneficial relationship among volunteer caregivers and individuals, facing death. Volunteers work. in San Francisco both at the Guest House, a home-like residence providing 24-hour care, and at Laguna Honda Hospice, a 28-bed hospice and AIDS unit, located in the nation's largest public long-term care facility. Each caregiver cultivates the "listening mind "through regular meditation or spiritual practice. This helps to develop the awareness, compassion and balance to respond to the needs of the dying and to hear their stories. Frank Ostaseski, Founding Director of Zen Hospice Project, says, "As hospice workers, one of our central tasks is to be available when stories are ready to be told." Recently, the Hospice has begun an' Oral History Project in which the volunteers support people who are dying in telling their stories. A volunteer either writes down a story in the form of a letter or, more commonly, records it. These stories are then sent to friends and family.
The following article is excerpted from an interview with Frank Ostaseski by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker, Inquiring Mind editors. Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients.

Adele was an old Russian, Jewish woman staying with us at the hospice. I got the call that she was dying and came to her room to find her curled over in bed, gasping for a breath. Her eyes were wide open with fear. An attendant tried to reassure her, "You don't have to be frightened." And Adele replied through her gasps, "If it was happening to you, you'd be frightened. Believe me." The attendant began stroking her while she continued to heave. "You're awfully cold," the attendant said. And Adele, again through her gasps, replied, "Of course I'm cold. I'm almost dead!" 

As I began to attend to her, I listened closely to try to understand what was actually needed. While she was gasping for the air, she was suffering. While she was pushing out the air, she was suffering. In the middle, right in between the breaths, was the place of relief. I said simply, "There's a place to rest right there. Can you feel it?" In that moment, her attention went to that place, the in-between place. And, for an instant, she rested there. It was as if something washed over her face; her eyes softened and the fear dissipated. She took four or five more breaths and she died.

At Zen Hospice Project, we act with minimal intervention and attempt to meet whatever is arising in front of us. There's a place to rest right there. Can you find it?" That was all I said. And she did everything else. She was honest and straightforward in her process all the way.

Sitting on the cushion, we watch the mind do its myriad activities. Hopefully, we are attending to it with some degree of equanimity. At the hospice, it's not appreciably different. We sit at the bedside and we listen'. We try to listen with our full body, not just with our ears. We must perpetually ask ourselves, "Am I fully here? Or am I checking my watch or looking out the window?"

At the heart of it, all we can really offer each other is our full attention. When someone is dying, their tolerance for bullshit is minimal. They will quickly sniff out insincerity. There may be material that arises which we don't particularly like or even strongly dislike just as we do on the cushion, we need to be able to sit still, to listen not knowing ,what will come next, to suspend judgment at least for the moment-so that whatever needs to evolve will be' able to do so.

In a hospice there are lifetimes of stories that have been lived and are now coming to an end. They are stories of grief, of joy, of regret and reconciliation, of reflection and anticipation, of denial and acceptance. For the person dying, as well as for family and friends, telling these stories is a way of preparing. The process of dying involves relinquishing our identities. Telling our stories can give us distance and help move us through the process. Often this is the way we make sense of our lives and discover their me meaning. But every story needs someone to listen.

Sometimes when a person tells his or her story., something changes. There was a very sweet elderly Italian woman, Rose, who, stayed with us. She came with a 11 prognosis of seven weeks to live. Seven months later she was still with us at the hospice. Volunteers kept describing the same conversation with Rose. Someone would walk in the room and say, "Rose, how you doing today?" With a tone of resignation, she would say, "I just want to die." Every day the same response. This became a running gag in the house. I told the volunteers, "We're not taking Rose seriously. We're laughing at her and we need to listen to exactly what she is saying."

So the next morning I went into her room and said, "Rose, how you doing today?" And again she said, "I just want to die." I said, "What makes you think that dying is going to be so much better?" She looked at me as if to say, 'What kind of a question is that to ask an eighty-year-old woman?' And I pushed on, "You know, Rose, there are no guarantees that it's any better on the other side." And she said, "Well, at least I'd get out." I asked, "Out of what?" So she began to tell me the story of her relationship with her husband.

As she told her story, it became clear that in the fifty years of this marriage, she had always taken care of her husband, cooked his meals, balanced his checkbook, accommodated his moods. Now that she was sick and dying, she couldn't imagine how he could possibly take care of her. She didn't want to be a burden. Better to go to strangers to be cared for. So she moved into the hospice. After she told me her story, we spent some time talking about it. Later, she had a talk with her husband. I wasn't there for that talk. All I know is that three days afterwards she moved out of the hospice and returned home. She lived at home for another seven months before she died.

As people tell us their stories, we have to really listen, trusting that insight may well arise from the telling. There is a place in the story that will often deliver what is needed. So pay close attention to whatever you are presented with. Start with that. Take it. Believe it. And see where it leads you. In this woman's case, when she sensed that someone had truly believed her, when she felt really heard, she was able to tell the story which led to her going home. Before she had told her story, she was convinced that her only solution, the only way she could 11 get out," was to die. Through telling her story, she realized that her illness and her need to be cared for-what she had imagined to be a burden-was the culmination of her life, a final gift to be shared. She made a reconciliation in her marriage and died at home with her husband and her daughter.

(continued)

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