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Stories of Lives
the basic rule in listening to the story of someone who is dying is to
believe that person. Take them literally and, at the same time, try to
hear the symbolic language through which they are trying to communicate.
There was a fellow who was referred to us by San Francisco General. He
had lived in a Tenderloin hotel before he went into the hospital. When
I first met him he was restrained in a bed because he had said that he
wanted to end his life. He saw no purpose in continuing. So I walked in
the room and I sat down next to his bed. I sat there for some time without
speaking. Finally he started to speak. He said, "You've been sitting there
for an awfully long time." And I said, "Yeah, I have." And he said, "People
don't sit around like that here." I said, "Well, I get a lot of practice
sitting; but, look, I came to talk to you about staying with us at our
hospice. I wanted to know if that would be interesting to you?" He said
it might and then went on to complain about the hospital restrictions.
I said, "What do you want?" And he said, "Spaghetti." And I said, "We make
spaghetti. We make really good spaghetti. If that's really what you want,
then that's where we'll start."
Raja Hornstein: "I want my pictures to celebrate life and death intertwined. I want them to open a door to your heart."
"Let's go."' So the next thing you knew, they were on the Concorde. "I've always wanted to fly on the Concorde," Peter would giggle, "Would you like some more champagne?" Getting off the plane Martha would inquire, "Where are we headed?" He'd say, "The Left Bank." So off they would go to the Left Bank. Now in a café, he would describe Josephine Baker singing in the corner. They would have an incredible lunch. Martha has said that she would walk away from this experience feeling very satiated and delighted, as if she had actually just gone on a wonderful little trip. And Peter, never having actually left his bed, was equally delighted. The next day they would decide to take a drive up the coast to Mendocino, stay at a bed and breakfast and walk along the headlands.
Martha could have said to Peter, "Remember you're not in Paris or Mendocino. You're in your bed. You're in a hospice. There is an IV line going in. Let's get real here." She could have interjected her agenda. But these trips were as real to him as anything that was happening in that hospice. When someone is telling us a story, no matter where that story is coming from, whether it's coming from a demented mind or a clear mind, it's real in that particular moment. We have to be able, at least at some level, to believe it and to find the place where we can enter.
Sometimes what people need to tell are the stories of their regrets and their dreams. There was a fellow, Jack, who lived at the hospice. He had been a heroin addict for fifteen years. He'd lived on the street or in the back of his car. He'd thought he had a chest cold and had gone to the emergency room at San Francisco General where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Three days later he was moved to the hospice having been told that he had less than six months to live. He never went back to his car.
In the course of his stay with us, we encouraged him to write some things down. He said that he'd never done that kind of a thing, but he'd give it a try. Here's an excerpt: "Over the years, there have been things put off or postponed because there was always plenty of time later on. That's all changed now. At least I've managed to do one major project. I finished that training to be a motorcycle mechanic. Been making plans to go back to work soon. Then to have this. They tell me less than a year. I'm gonna fool them. I'm gonna make it last longer than that ... Who am I kidding? To tell the truth, I'm scared, angry, tired and confused. I'm only 45 years old and I feel like I'm 145. I have so much that I want to do, and now there isn't even time to sleep as I should. I need to save every moment that I can."
We often think that grief is about what we have had and lost. Sometimes the grief about what we never got to have is much more profound and much more present. The story of "what we never got" may be the one that needs to be told.
The stories we hear from family members often precede an important shift in their relationship to the person dying. Dusty was the brother of an elderly patient. We had contacted Dusty to let him know that his sister was dying. He hadn't seen her in twenty years. Dusty was a rough-hewn cowboy, a weather-beaten kind of guy. He had a belt buckle the size of his belly, lizard-skin boots and a ten-gallon hat.In those days, we took care of patients in the residence building at San Francisco Zen Center. So when Dusty arrived at the door at Zen Center and saw the shaved heads and black robes, his first question was "What kind of place is this you got my sis?" When we went upstairs to her room, he could barely get across the threshold. He looked through the door, saw his sis, and couldn't go in. It had been a long time. He'd been out on the rodeo circuit for, years. Finally, he got up his courage to enter the room, but only for a few minutes at a time. Eventually, this old cowboy and his sister picked up making small talk right where they'd left off years before. He'd start to talk about his belt buckle collection, life on the road, his trailer. Then he'd leave the room. We'd go downstairs to the garden and smoke cigarettes. Then he'd go back up for a few minutes. And it went like this for days.
One day I said to Dusty, "You know, Sis is getting much closer to dying. If there's something that you want to say to her, you don't want to waste too much more time." It just got slipped in right in the middle of one of those belt-buckle conversations. And he said, "You know, I want to tell her it, but I can't. I've never been able to say it."
About two weeks later, we were sitting in the garden and he just began to speak. I was about to get up and go do something else, but I thought, "No, I better stay still here for a moment." That's when the stories seem to come, when you least expect them. This hard-edged cowboy began to tell the most incredible, and in many ways tender, story. He started when he and Sis were young children. They had lived with their parents until they were four or five when both of their parents had died. They had been split up and both moved to separate orphanages, then later placed together in a foster home. Over several hours, as this story unraveled, he described the horrific life they had as kids moving from household to household. He also spoke about the kinds of injuries that he had inflicted on her-the abuse, the ways he had abandoned her. There was tremendous embarrassment and shame as he spoke.
Mostly, during this story, all I did was sit still and nod my head. After he had spilled it out and brought us up to that moment, I said, "Let's go upstairs and see your sister now." That was practically the only intervention I made in several hours. We walked upstairs and went into the room.
I don't know if he had ever shared this story with others or not. But after telling it, his manner was totally changed. He said, "Sis, I got something I want to tell you." In that moment, he was available to her in a way that he never could have been before in his life. She saw it, and immediately there was a meeting that happened between them. She turned to him and offered the most exquisite piece of forgiveness I've ever witnessed in my life. She said to him, "Look, I have somebody who bathes me. I have somebody who feeds me. I am surrounded by love. There is no blame."
For me that's the power of a story. In telling this story, he was able
to meet her in the same vulnerable place in which she was now living. This
kind of storytelling is essential to healing, especially when there have
been hidden difficulties in the lives people have shared, and particularly
if there has been some shame.
After having watched someone die, one might think that the reality of their death would be undeniable. But, in fact, it's not. Our capacity to protect ourselves is very well developed. Sometimes, in order to truly acknowledge the death of someone we love, we need to tell their story.
A woman had died, and her sister had watched this process of her dying. An hour had passed after the death, and I was sitting at the bedside along with the sister. I asked her if she would like to wash the body. And the sister said, "Not yet. She's not dead yet." I said, "Okay." After some time, I asked, "When was she most alive?" This was all she needed to begin to tell me her story.
She started with the tale of an incredible day when, as a twelve-year-old girl, her sister had climbed down into a cave. Then the story of her sister's life began to unfold, how brave she was, how she later worked in political movements, then became a writer, then a traveler. As she told the story, the woman was able to move through her dead sister's life, grieving the loss along the way. And the period at the end of the story was her sister's death. That's how she had to finish tier story because that's where we were. Then she said, "Now I would like to wash her body."
Once or twice a year the Abbot at San Francisco Zen Center, Tenshin Reb Anderson, comes over to speak with the hospice volunteers. One night he gave a very insightful talk that included the best advice I have ever heard on caregiving. He said simply, "Stay close and do nothing." That's how we try to practice at the Zen Hospice Project. We stay close and do nothing. We sit still and listen to the stories.
Frank Ostaseski counsels the dying and those in grief He leads volunteer trainings and teaches workshops on Death & Dying.
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