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Reflections of an Elder

As a retired hospice chaplain, and as one becoming a conscious elder, I was asked to share some personal reflections on coming to terms with my own mortality and dying, as well as some resources for the journey.  I do so with respect, and some trepidation, recognizing the sacred and unique nature of approaching the “great matters of life and death.”  I offer my story to serve you; please embrace what beckons and leave the rest by the wayside.   

I am fortunate that, in Hawaii, there is a traditional role for the elder, the kupuna, who is acknowledged as a source of life and wisdom for the community. I feel an obligation to share the wisdom I have gained from more than 40 years of ministry. Writing this reflection is one small way. The Great Story of the universe is one of birth, death, and rebirth. The land under my feet emerged from volcanic action on the ocean floor millions of years ago, and will one day sink back below the surface of the Pacific, leaving only a small, windswept coral atoll – the only evidence of a once thriving Island State. 

Not only are death and life interwoven into Nature but also into the evolution of the species from more elemental life forms to more complex. Humans recapitulate this cycle of life from infancy to adolescence, to adulthood, to old age and death. Even in spiritual paths, the True Self can never emerge without the death of delusion, grandiose expectations, and false hopes. The great philosophers and mystics assure us that a healthy dose of mortality always helps clarify one’s proper place in the larger scheme of things. 

Personally, the words of a Benedictine contemplative pointed the way for me in retirement: “Attend to the seasons of the heart; it is not always Spring.”  Ah, I realized, I am now in the “Winter” of life and find myself adapting to the changes in my physical appearance, levels of energy, and mental preoccupations. This became my spiritual practice. It was neither morose nor distressing: for the first time, I felt compassion for myself because it felt natural and real to grieve these changes. 

Simply being present to myself diminished my fear: it was like seeing in the light of day rather than allowing death to mushroom in the dread of night. After looking closely, we begin to realize it is not death that we fear but our fear of death. So, how do we relate with any fear? One way is to develop a curiosity about it, befriend it, get up close to it, and look it in the eye. That is what happened to me at hospice as I sat with people as they took their last breath. I discovered that death didn’t have to be an enemy but rather a friend to teach us not to live so fearfully. This changed way of seeing has been observed not only by me but also by many who care for the dying – their families, friends, and hospice workers.  

We begin to notice there is a marvelous built-in symmetry in life that brings us close to the dying – despite our best efforts to keep it at bay. We all have attended funerals of colleagues and friends or visited in hospitals, but often they leave us mostly ‘at a distance.’ One day our grandparents and parents, or someone close to us, actually bring us into the presence of death and dying. There are no ‘distances’ here. This is a face-to-face, direct encounter with Mom’s dying; but due to this intimacy, it also evokes our own.  When my Dad died several years ago, I remember wanting to bathe him before the mortuary took his body from us. I needed the tactile experience of combing his smooth grey hair back one final time. I washed his face as he had once washed mine; I carefully caressed the smooth and inert arms and chest. And on turning his body, my hand, amazingly touched a patch of fading warmth in the small of his back. In this long good-bye, I yearned to ingest his presence, knowing I’d never see him again in this incarnation. Ever.

And one day, I too shall die like him. But I know a great calmness and confidence in finally opening to this kind of knowledge wrestled from being in death’s presence. Nothing – no thing – lasts, so it is important to live with open hands and open heart. It means that I can wake up now and smell the plumeria and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. It means I am free to live today and not waste my “one wild life.” It means I can tell you how much I love you today, and not wait. 

In this season, I feel a natural desire to simplify, to pare my life down to the essentials and not foolishly squander the days that remain. I enjoy quiet moments reading with my wife, walking Kailua’s white sandy beaches, playing with Katie, Jakey, and Patrick, my grandchildren, and sipping a hearty soup at the end of the day. My focus has turned within, monitoring the internal climate of the heart, refusing to be distracted by the ongoing drama of network news. The path is to maintain a certain mindfulness and attention to what is before me – without likes or dislikes, just a generous acceptance of and kinship with whatever is there. Retirement is a marvelous season to harvest what I have learned, integrating it into my life story and mercifully reconciling myself to what I have made of my life.

RESOURCES AND REFERENCES

For those wishing to pursue some of the ideas alluded to in my reflection, I have gathered some references, as well as some tools I found helpful at hospice to guide families and those facing serious illness and dying through their journey.

For books critical for my journey:

Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, 2008, Joan Halifax.

The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort, and Spiritual Transformation, 1998, Kathleen Dowling Singh

Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, 1982, Stephen and Ondrea Levine.

Old Age Journey into Simplicity, 1987, Helen M. Luke.

Here are two institutes that offer training in practices cultivating conscious living and dying. While the skills taught are rooted in Zen Buddhism, one does not have to be Buddhist to attend the programs nor to benefit from them. It is just that the Buddhists have longer history and richer traditions focused on death and dying.

Joan Halifax, Abbot, Upaya Institute, 1404 Cerro Gordo Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87501. 986-8518, upaya@upaya.org

Frank Ostaseski, Metta Institute, PO Box 2170. Sausalito, CA  94966. 331-9600, info@mettainstitute.org

The main national site providing resources and information on hospice and palliative care is the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, where you can also get lists of hospices and palliative care providers by state. Growth House is another organization with end-of-life information.

What is Palliative Care (PC)?  The goal of PC is to help patients with serious illnesses feel better. It prevents or treats symptoms and side effects of disease and treatment. PC also treats emotional, social, practical, and spiritual problems that illnesses can bring up. When patients feel better, they have an improved quality of life. PC can be given before during and after treatments meant to cure or treat disease.

What is Hospice Care (HC)? The goal of HC is to provide comfort and improve quality of life. It includes medical services, emotional support and spiritual resources for people who are expected to live 6 months or less. “Hospice” is not a place; it is a program of services that can be provided in hospitals, nursing homes, the privacy of your own home, and other appropriate venues. Some people think that hospice means giving up; but it is simply an end-of-life clinical specialty that focuses on quality of life instead of continuing to prolong your dying.

Clarence Liu, Retired Hospice Chaplain

Two practical guides for end-of-life, one for families, the other for those facing serious illness and dying:

The End-of-Life Handbook, 2007, David B. Feldman, PH.D. and S. Andrew Lasher, Jr., M.D.

Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness, 1999, Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D.