I have been a terrible hospice volunteer lately. I have missed several of our ongoing training sessions, as well as many of my shifts. In my arrogance, I assumed because I meditated, that because I had faced some of my own trauma, I would be able to sit with the dying with balance and ease.
I couldn’t. I can’t. I have another shift tomorrow, and I am dreading it.
We had our last ongoing training session tonight. I didn’t want to go to that either, but because it was the last one, I found some energy for it. I had to work at it, but I got there — albeit somewhat late. And, tonight’s exercise was “contemplating our own death.”
I always have this thing with the other hospice volunteers where I feel like I am the least on top of my shit person in the room. Many of them are older than me, more religious than me, more experienced with the dying than me, more organized than me, kinder than me, gentler than me. I just feel so inferior, but they’re such a fucking loving and kind group of people they won’t even grant me my self pity.
“None of us know what we’re doing when it comes to dying,” they all said to me when I expressed my reservations to the group.
“Yeah, but I really really don’t know.”
We did this exercise earlier in the night, where a question would be asked of the group, and the more you identified with the question the further to the right you’d walk, you’d stay in the middle if you were sort of uncertain, and if you disagreed with the question you’d walk to the left
One of the questions was “Do you feel at ease thinking about your own death? If so, please walk to the right.”
I walked just about as far as I could to the left, but many people walked to the right. Some stayed in the middle. I secretly dubbed some of the questions to be measuring “how enlightened” you were around death — which, you know, I’m sure was sort of unhealthy. People who felt at ease around their own death were “enlightened” — and me, well… I was not that.
Another question was “Do you feel absolutely certain you are going to die? If so, please walk to the right.” Nearly everyone walked to the right, but a handful of us (including myself) stayed in the middle. This one generated some chuckles, and I was embarrassed to admit that I kind of don’t think I’m going to die. I think I blushed. But, I had to be honest! I sort of don’t think I’m going to die. Like, logically I know I will, but some part of me doesn’t really believe it.
I feel like I’m going to live forever.
Anyway, another strike against death enlightenment. I mean, my god, I am in so much denial around death I can’t even accept its reality.
Several more questions like this were asked (how do you feel about the death of older people, younger people, do you have a faith based belief around death, etc.) and I was sort of beginning to get jealous of my “more enlightened” peers. I wished I was more settled around death, more accepting, and that this could translate into a type of stability that would lead to my being a more reliable presence for the dying I spend time with.
At some point, however, the question was asked “Do you feel like you have lived enough life?” and I was shocked to discover my answer was yes — yes, I have lived enough, and I knew it with absolute certainty.
About half a year ago, 6 days into a meditation retreat, I asked myself the question “what do I want to feel on my death bed?” The answer came pretty quickly; gratitude. I want to be grateful for my life.
Then I realized, I was already grateful for my life. There was nothing more to do, nothing else to accomplish. My life was already a life well lived.
Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t take more of it! I love life, and I’ll gladly take as much as I am given. But, it is already complete. Already perfect. All of my fears about death are fears of the unknown; none of them are fears about not having lived enough because I have lived enough.
Of course, not everyone felt that way. When I looked around at my fellow hospice volunteers, I saw that many people felt they hadn’t lived enough — even some people quite a bit older than me. And in that moment, I realized we all have our own strengths that we can rely on to carry us, and that I had been measuring myself against other people’s strengths not my own.
Some people have a rock solid faith that they can lean on, some people have a deep bravery that helps them face the unknown, some people have a beautiful kindness that opens them up to all the love the world has to offer. I have an appreciation for my own lived experience, and by extension, the lived experience of others.
I was brunching with a friend this morning and I told him that when I sit with people at hospice, what I really want is to help them see the value in the life they’ve lived. So often we can have regrets, or aspirations destined to forever go unfilled, but underneath that is a shining perfection that is untouchable. Every life is transcendentally beautiful, and in that I have complete certainty.
I suppose, in a way, it’s even the point of my blog although I would never have articulated it as such before. If I had the ability to communicate anything to you with my writing, it would be that your life is perfect. Your experience is perfect — you are perfect. You are not lacking in any way.
Many of you won’t believe me, and that’s ok. Hopefully when you’re dying, you’ll have someone like me to sit with you who can remind you of how perfect you are. When I am dying, I won’t need someone like that. I’ll need someone with a rock solid faith or a beautiful kindness to help me face my terror as I look into the unknown.
Because I am afraid. I am so, so afraid of dying and that’s what’s burning me out with hospice. I am terrified of the unknown, and I don’t know how to face it.