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Death, dying, and the Dharma

I often wondered how Tod manages to do this work day after day. To be honest, once a week was enough for me. Tod gave up a successful business to train as a nurse so that he could do something to help those suffering and dying from AIDS, a disease that had taken away many of his friends. I grew very fond of Tod over the years that I volunteered at the Guest House. He was kind and effective and never added to the feelings of inadequacy that I frequently suffered. He seemed unflappable in the face of death.

Only once do I remember him feeling overwhelmed by the task. A Native American man had been admitted since my last shift. Three out of the four beds were reserved for victims of AIDS, but I think this man was dying from cancer. Tod asked me to take breakfast up, and he was clearly reluctant to do this himself. He warned me that I should be prepared for a shock. I have never seen a face before or since like that Native American’s. The dark skin was drawn impossibly tight over the high cheek-bones, the black eyes where sunk so deep that they where nearly invisible and seemed to absorb the light in the room. The face seemed not the face of a dying man, which both Tod and I were used to, but the face of death itself. In the few days he had left, the man was surrounded by members of his family and tribe, who sat around his bed chanting and sometimes shaking rattles. I never got used to the face that seemed to proclaim the universality of death, rather than just the passing of a single man.

An important part of the hospice is the relationships between those who work there, whether paid or voluntary. To sustain this work it seems essential to have others who will give you a hug, listen to your fears and, perhaps most importantly, share a joke (even one that might seem in bad taste to an outsider). The Zen hospice project trains around 70 volunteers a year, most of whom work at the hospice ward of Laguna Honda hospital. Others, like myself, elect to work at the Guest House. The need for a feeling of community is always emphasized, so that a dying person enters, and for a short time becomes part of, a community.

For a hospice to function effectively attention must be given not only to the dying but to the carers as well. To become a volunteer one has to undergo a short but intensive training. All volunteers are expected to have some form of spiritual practice, although this need not be Buddhist. People come to hospice work for many different reasons, often as a result of having lost a friend or relative. When accepted onto the training people have to agree that at any point they might be asked to leave, and some people do not make it through the training. Sometimes potential volunteers are too raw with grief to support others.

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