by Chris Hargrove, MSSW
Sri Kaleshwar was once asked, what was the best way to bring unconditional love in ourselves into the world. He did not hesitate with his answer:
Be around and involved in suffering. Receive suffering. Recognize the suffering. Decharge the suffering. Then there is unconditional love. So, to go through that pain, to be around that pain, be involved in that pain, and digest and decharge that pain – then there’s no more pain left. There is only true love left. That’s it.
I have been a Hospice social worker for over 10 years now, and I am often asked, “How do you do that? It must be hard and depressing.” My answer also comes without hesitation: No. It is not. It is a blessing. My answer is informed by the truth of Sri Kaleshwar’s words: when we involve ourselves in the suffering of others, love emerges and transforms not only the person suffering but the person attending to that suffering.
If this is indeed true, that love blooms in the fields of suffering, then why are we so afraid of death? It is a peculiar phenomenon really, as it is one of the few assurances of being born human. The answer has at least 2 components: First, we fear death because we have been culturally conditioned to avoid it all costs: thinking of it, talking about it, even acknowledging its inevitability. Second, linked to the first in a causal chain, we fear death because of our ultimate identification with and attachment to the body and the ego.
Frank Ostaseski, who founded Zen Hospice and now runs the Metta Institute, years ago coined the phrase “compassionate companioning”. I have found this to be one of the most apt and beautiful descriptions of what each of us can do for the dying. Each of us. We can companion them. We can walk alongside them on this remarkable journey and transition they are undertaking. We can bring compassion to their chair or bedside. We can meet their suffering with love and empathy. We can stand with them in their fear, acknowledging it, but not surrendering to it; offering calm and repose.
Through our efforts to develop divine qualities in ourselves – love, kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, acceptance – we position ourselves to be a transformative healing presence, to respond and not react. Through our work to cultivate stitha pragnatha - a calm, balanced mind - we can create a refuge of solace at the bedside. The gift of bringing a calm, compassionate presence to companion the dying and their loved ones on their journey, something so simple, can be profoundly transformative. The power of this simple act cannot be overstated in my experience.
One of the lessons we learn in being present to the dying, one of the blessings, is the visceral experience that love is the ultimate and final reality. When all else has been stripped away, love is all that remains. Not all Hospice patients arrive there as the attachment to ego can be fierce and unflinching even in the face of death. However, Hospice patients, by virtue of their disease process, are in the position of having everything that is extraneous, illusory, or ego based stripped away, piece by piece, loss by loss (e.g. their identity, their sense of independence and autonomy, their functional capacity etc.)
I recall being with a patient, a very strong, indepenent lady. She had been a probation officer and had been married to a psychiatrist. I had been able to facilitate a “bucket list” trip for her to Alaska. Not long after she returned, her decline began to accelerate aggressively. In the days and hours before her death, she was bedbound and increasingly withdrawn. The ravages of her disease were present and could be heard in every breath. I sat with her, at her bedside. I stroked her head, held her hand and made intentions for her peaceful transition. In that silence, she opened her eyes and smiled a knowing smile. I told her I loved her and as she said she loved me that space we shared became sanctified because it revealed a profound but simple truth. In the absence of the artifice of ego, love is all there is.
There are practical tools we can bring to our companioning: life review, reminiscence, active, attentive listening with our 3rd ear, empathetic reflection, and compassionate witness and counsel. We can provide a safe place of trust where emotional processing can occur and life and relationship closure tasks can be achieved. We can encourage our companions in the act of forgiveness, both giving and receiving. We can foster, just by our presence, an atmosphere that lends itself to reconciliation. We can honor the person that remains, that unique soul right in front of us despite their illness, because they are more than that. And, we can stand ready to dispense the healing tonic of laughter and the power of a smile. In short, we can heal.
Just recently, I was able to sit with a patient. He is impoverished and has struggled most of his life with addiction, and continues to even during his journey with Hospice. He is self taught and quite brilliant really, but he recently confessed the depth of guilt he is carrying for having exposed his younger siblings and his son to substance abuse and all that environment can entail. His sense of guilt was overwhelming and seeped out of every pore of his face as he hung his head low. I was able to witness his pain, to affirm his owning of responsibility, but also, at the same time, to help him to reframe his self judgment and encourage him in self forgiveness. Tears flowed from his face as began to release his self criticism and moved into the openness and freedom that forgiveness creates. What a reflection. As his heart opened and gratitude and love emerged, I felt my own heart expand. Once again, the veil had been lifted to reveal what is really real.
This reflection, the reflection we receive back when we show up for others in this way, in the face of their suffering, unblinking, fully present is the real moksha (freedom), as Sri Kaleshwar taught. The mechanism that’s operating in that sacred space is a direct soul to soul exchange of energy. By caring for others, in the reflection of gratitude and grace we receive back, our heart opens further. Our soul grows. Our soul capacity to serve others grows. We quite literally increase our capacity to serve because the truth is that in taking care of another, we are taking care of ourselves. We are here to take care of each other.
And this, then, is the blessing of being present to the dying.
has a been a student of the ancient knowledge for 13 years and traveled back and forth to India to study with Sri Kaleshwar in Penukonda, India for 9 years. He has served as a hospice social worker for over 10 years. Chris weaves spiritually-based techniques for self-care & healing with his clients and co-workers, and in volunteer opportunities. He is a certified Sai Shakti Teacher & Healer and spends time leading pujas, giving healings, and sharing the ancient knowledge in Knoxville, Tennessee.