Sunday, August 12, 2007

Caring for the Dying and the Self

When a loved one is in the (relatively slow) process of dying from a terminal illness, we can often lose ourselves in the minutiae of care-giving, ignoring our own needs vis-a-vis the grieving process. When someone is living at home and facing death with family at their side, those family members providing emotional and physical support can be consumed by the needs of the dying person, consequently being potentially cut off from their own feelings and the need to grieve and mourn an imminent loss.

Finessing the end of a life is a subtle emotional process for all involved. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had very specific ideas about the "stages" of grieving and loss which radically changed the global conversation about death and dying. Stephen and Ondrea Levine also offer a unique spiritual perspective of this most intimate and ubiquitous human experience. Sogyal Rinpoche, often quoted on this blog, shares his own views of death and dying through his own spiritual lens in his seminal book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, one chapter being entitled Heart Advice on Helping the Dying.

I have found myself lost in the pragmatics of supporting my parents as my step-father faces death from metastatic pancreatic cancer. With no treatment options remaining, home hospice care is now the key to comfort, symptom management, and emotional and spiritual support for my parents. In this way, I hope to make room for my own grieving which has been sidelined by the need for practical problem-solving and advocacy. Those needs will not disappear, but when one enlists the assistance of professionals who are highly skilled in this delicate process, one can begin to let one's guard down and open to the winds of grief.

I now welcome those winds to blow through me, allowing myself to begin the process of letting go even as constant presence and compassion is needed. For if the caregiver goes uncared for, the caregiver's ability to serve will only suffer. To paraphrase an ancient physician whose name is unknown to me: "Unshed tears will make other organs weep".
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