Saturday, January 09, 2016

What Does Caring Look Like?

For over a year, a group of women, including myself, have been caring for a friend who has Stage 4 cancer.  The surgeon who removed part of her intestines when she was first diagnosed said she was about two days away from dying when she came into the hospital that first time.  Now it is over a year later and she went from being totally bed ridden to being back up and about, taking yoga classes, riding her bike, and feeling the love and care from the group of us.  This has been, perhaps, the most healing thing of all, as her life has not been an easy one and basking in unconditional love has been a rare occurrence within it.  (As an aside, I think it is pretty rare for most of us, so c'mon people!  Get out there and love unconditionally!  The world needs more of this, pronto!)

Since Thanksgiving, she has been on a steady decline and things seem to be deteriorating more quickly now.  The will power and inner strength that made her such a survivor in her troubled life - and in the last year of illness - are what are tripping her up now.  All but bedridden again, she speaks of regaining her strength and getting back on track.  In other words, she is in denial about what is happening.  Not complete denial - there have been moments when she lets drop a sentence or two, or even just a look sometimes, that reveals that she knows perfectly well what is going on.  In her moments of "once I get my legs moving again..." she also is convinced that things will be just as they were before she got sick.  Both are real and true for her.

So, what is compassion now?  How do we care for her in the way that best respects who and where she is in her life?  Should we travel along with her in her delusion about the future?  Or be more honest about what we see happening?  Neither is easy.

Among our group - "goddesses" she calls us - there are some who fall more strongly in the former camp.  They see no reason to do anything other than exactly what she asks.  Why would you steal away someone's hope?  I admit that I have trouble with this stance.  Sometimes hope robs us of exactly what we need to do and causes us a lot of suffering.

This is what writer and activist, Derrick Jensen, says about hope, or more specifically, giving up hope,
A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. . . 
He is talking about the environment here, but I think you could apply it elsewhere in life. Or to life itself.  If my friend gave up her hope of staying alive for however long she hopes to remain alive, then she (and by extension, all of us) could focus on what her life is like right now.  We could take steps to make her more comfortable, steps that require that she admit that her time left on this planet is almost up.  Does that sound cold?  I hope not because it comes from a place deep longing to help her suffer less.

I often find myself asking, "what is the goal here?" when the next thing happens - she goes into the hospital or has another chemo treatment.  It doesn't feel like the goal is her comfort as these actions seem to cause more discomfort and pain.  And they create a greater distance from the reality of what is actually happening.  But it is what she wants to do.  This has been challenge of being part of her care.  Can I give up what I want, even when I see that it would be more helpful, less painful, and just offer her what she wants?  And is this really the best thing?  The best care?

There are no easy answers.

Here is a beautiful talk about death and dying.  May we all find our grace as we face that reality, whenever it may be.

1 comment:

Jan Morrison said...

I've been lucky to accompany a couple of friends on their last journey (in those
bodies ). The first time was with a long time practioner. One of our teachers said to her fairly sternly "Don't think for one moment you will live forever." Was he cruel? I don't think so. It is our delusuions that make us truly suffer. When she heard him she relaxed into her true state of dying. She became more peaceful knowing there was no being (or super being) to plead with. Just her moving to a place we are all going. Do people tell nice stories for the dying or for themselves? Birth and death are inevitable. Attachment to what we thought we were (invincible, immortal) is more painful than giving way to the truth of impermanence. Like resisting orgasm because we won't have the illusion of control, we deny the beauty of that transformation.
My love goes out to you on this bodhisattva work you are doing. Hold to the truth you know.