Caregivers can only offer others what they offer to themselves. Without this intimate clarity of self-awareness, we exhaust ourselves by imagining another’s pain and offering inauthentic responses. We risk being vehicles of pity rather than compassion.
Grief is a universal experience, one that we need to know personally. Grief circles us all like planets orbiting the gravity of our suffering. No one is spared. Steven Levine wrote, ‘If sequestered pain made a sound, the world would be humming all the time.’ We can only hear and address the humming of our patients’ sequestered grief if we’re willing to hear our own. If we’re deaf to ours, we’re deaf to theirs.
I’d like to share five gates into our own grief so that we’re able to recognize and transform this most human experience. These gates are drawn from Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow and modified based upon my own experience.
“This too shall pass.” My mother would comfort me with these words when I was facing something difficult, like an earache or an hour in the dentist’s chair. And her words rang true – those challenges did pass and I was eventually restored to my preferred condition. But I also remember greeting her words with skepticism. “Why do I have to face anything unpleasant? Don’t tell me this will go away eventually. Take it away now!”
Why should we act compassionately? This is an important question for Westerners steeped in the Darwinian view that life is a selfish struggle. If only the toughest survive, isn’t compassion towards others self-defeating?
The belief that we are primarily competitors makes it difficult to see the benefits of compassion. But I’d like to suggest 3 ways in which we benefit by choosing compassion over selfishness.
Our relationship to the value of caregiving contains a paradox. On the one hand, we hold as heroes those who care grandly: Mother Teresa’s care for Calcutta’s poor, St. Francis’s protection of living creatures, and the Indian guru Amma’s 33 million hugs come immediately to mind. But on the other hand, while we value the care given by parents, teachers, healthcare workers, childcare providers, custodians (and on and on) we don’t value that care financially. The paradox is that we both value and don’t value caregiving.
I’m privileged to be on retreat at Deer Park Monastery. Today is Lazy Day – a day in which the schedule is dropped so the monks, nuns, and lay residents can relax. I’d like to use this lazy interlude to share lessons from the monastery that caregivers may find useful.
We can be especially sympathetic and affectionate with someone who persecutes us with abusive language. That very abuse conveys boundless loving-kindness. It is a compassionate device to liberate us entirely.
-Torei Zenji, 18th century Japanese Zen Master
I was a brand new hospital chaplain, freshly ordained, trained, and full of ideas about how things ought to be: Patients would welcome my presence; staff would embrace my calm manner; administrators would gush about how much I meant to the hospital; my workload would be manageable and fulfilling.
Well, sometimes these things happened, but mostly work felt like one long catastrophe: Patients refused my visits; staff had no idea why I was there; administrators saw me as a costly luxury; and I frequently felt overworked, exhausted, and fed up with administrative tasks.
The buzz on my belt brought an adrenalin rush. The ER was paging and that meant trouble because they don’t call the chaplain when an 11-year-old boy breaks his arm or an elderly woman falls. They call when death is in the house.
I arrived to find Stephen, a middle-aged man, lying on a gurney surrounded by the experienced and efficient ER staff. A CPR tag-team circulated blood through his lifeless body while others placed tubes and IVs and called out regular progress reports. After some time, the lead physician said, ‘I’m calling it. Time of death: 2:14 pm.’
Thanks to the Northwest Dharma Association for publishing this article about our recent Contemplative Caregiving Retreat. We’re planning a longer follow-up retreat for 2017.
A Day of Exploring Contemplative Caregiving
Grief follows its’ own mind. It sneaks into the house through locked doors, has its way with the furniture, breaks the fine china, and departs on a whim. But it doesn’t retreat far: Just as we’ve finished sweeping the debris, grief returns to overwhelm whatever wall of incense and icons and soft beeswax candles we’re hiding behind and makes us doubt the holy answers. It lingers to wrack our bodies more painfully than an Inquisitor. And even after our breath has relaxed in celebration of its extended absence, we wake once again to feel grief’s great weight next to us in the bed.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.