Caring for the Dying

Several years ago, my husband came across a letter I had written when I lived and worked in a hospice care home called Enso House back in 2005.

At the time, I was writing ‘back home’ to the monastery in Japan, telling the sangha there about my experience so far working at the hospice on Whidbey Island. You see, the Roshi (Zen master) would send one of us from the monastery in Japan every six months to work with dying people as part of our Zen training.

When my husband found the letter again, he shared it on social media and recently a friend told me she remembered reading it, that it had made an impression on her, and that she would like to read it again. So I thought I would share it here on my blog for her to have access to it and also to keep a record of it myself.

From a caregiver to her community of Zen students at Sogenji in Japan:

“I am fairly exhausted after a 12-day, non-stop stint of caregiving for three different patients here at our beloved Enso. Dive in, head-first, hands-on, dirty diapers, tapioca spoon-fed, watching the breaths become more labored, turn the body this way, that way, still moaning, what do they need? What do I need to do? Just sit with them, watch the breaths, my breaths. And, after all night, look, the day is breaking

pink horizon, hear the han echo over from Tahoma as I am in the room, by the bedside, watching the deer in the pasture, the robin devour a worm in the driveway, the open space, the sense of this day, this

potential–huge. Measure the urine. Change the bandage. Become frustrated with not knowing how to best respond to his stupor. My frustration turns to impatience, turns to unloving unsettled buzz in my body. It’s okay, get a cup of tea. Just sit with him some more. Let it be uncomfortable. Next shift I’ll be with the woman who has slowly softened like a pink tulip, opening and fading. With her, I say the Hail Mary aloud, dribble water in her mouth, speak softly with her grieving son.

A recent guest was only here for 2 days, but it seemed like 700 years. And we three were seated semi-circle around him as the breaths drew out and then stopped. The relief of release. The

congratulatory joy I felt for him, finally able to let go. The peace of washing the body with rosemary lavender water, putting on the fresh night shirt, positioning the hands above the sheets. Not morbid.

Lovely. Open the windows to let the cool night pass in, let the energy of the spirit pass out.

It’s okay for me here, so far. Lots of support from the community and volunteers–bringing food, offering services, taking a shift here and there. A smoothly moving organism to help us best cradle these

creatures in their final days. Getting a wider and wider glimpse of how, exactly, death informs life, life informs death–this threshold space of hospice work, like a midwife–plugs me smack into the vibrant

current of my curiosity of what the hell this aliveness is. At times it seems simple, normal, dirty, natural. At times I think I feel a light quivering in the room, a wave of mysterious Greater enveloping us

all, our fragile physical bodies working both effortlessly and intentionally to maintain ourselves and each other.

So the training doesn’t seem far away at all…..”

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