The case for compassion

holdinghandsI wanted to share with you a blog from the Washington Post, written by the co-founders of an important organization, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. The Center follows in the footsteps of Upaya, where I participated in the “being with dying” program. I was particularly struck by the opening paragraph, describing a heart-breaking situation with a patient who is dying of cancer:

“I am dying. My tears are not because I am sad I am dying. I am just so disheartened that no one wants to talk to me about this and just sit with me. I wish someone would sit with me, like you two, and just be with me at this crucial time.”

It’s such a small request—one that the authors fulfilled without a second thought—but one that can quite literally mean everything to someone who is facing the end of their life.

Ultimately what we’re talking about in these situations is the need for compassion.

We often hear the term referenced in terms of health care, but not everyone realizes how critical compassion really is to any palliative treatment plan. There is a strong scientific basis underscoring the role that compassionate care plays the psychological and, consequently, physical well-being. It takes myriad forms and it’s clearly not quantifiable in scientific terms, but there is little question that small acts of compassion can have a massive impact; holding hands, listening to someone sharing their story, smiling at one another in silence, or even crying together all provide a level of comfort to a dying patient that many of us cannot conceive of.

The response of the patient they referenced leaves no question of that:

“As we were leaving Sarah’s room, she smiled and said, ‘Thank you both for pulling up a chair and sitting down. Thank you for looking at me. I felt you so engaged and that you were curious about me. When we sat in silence, which was kind of awkward at first, it turned out to be just wonderful because you didn’t run out. Maybe this is what I missed my whole life—care, attention and curiosity and silence. Thank you for offering that.’ 

She died quietly the next day, leaving us an invitation to imagine a health-care system that provides not only care and attention but also curiosity, presence and when there is nothing more to say, silence.”

So I’d like to leave you with a simple request of your own. As the holiday season barrels towards us, please take a moment to exercise compassion, however briefly or minutely with a loved one because in the end, those moments are all that matter.

Wishing you all peace for this season and all the year.

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Coping with the holidays at the most difficult time

Winter is here, and the holiday season is fast approaching. For most people, it’s a time of year that we look forward to, that brings us warmth and joy at the thought of its arrival. But when a loved one is facing the end of their life the holidays can be especially hard, not only for the one dying, but for all of their friends and family.

It can be incredibly difficult to balance the sadness one feels at the impending loss of loved ones while the world around you is celebrating.

But there’s also something truly beautiful that happens around Christmas, that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness on many occasions. The holidays, more often than not, bring together friends and family members from all over, some of whom might have been apart for years—it’s the most common time of year for reunions. And so Christmas, in fact, can provide someone who is dying with an opportunity they might never have otherwise.

Yes, it can be difficult coming to terms with the fact that this might be someone’s last Christmas, but it’s also such an important time to celebrate the memories that have been created in all those holidays past.

Remember too, that staff at hospices and palliative care centers are always available to help. Never hesitate to reach out to them; they are no strangers to the pressures associated with this time of year. Take the time to read this piece written by the Edmonton Zone Palliative Care Program, and as it says, “be good to yourself.”

What are you waiting for?

I spoke last week about the locum I spent this past month in Sarnia, and briefly mentioned how much I really like the opportunity to ‘slow things down’ by working in a smaller city. The reason why I find it so valuable is that I always walk away from these opportunities with a wealth of new experiences and lessons.

Upon spying my wedding ring, one of the patients in palliative care asked me my age and whether my partner and I had any children. When I answered ‘no’, and that I was 37, she quite bluntly asked me, “Well what are you waiting for? Get to it!”

I know we often hear these kinds of things from friends and family on a regular basis, but it’s easy for us to ignore it, or nod politely and just move the conversation on. But these comments become all the more poignant when you’re working in palliative care. Many out there are under the misapprehension that palliative care is just about easing suffering for the elderly at the end of their lives.

What they forget is how many, what we would consider ‘young’ people are found there as well. I am constantly reminded of how fleeting life can be, and how important it is to appreciate and celebrate that fact. And we do so through our deeds and actions. The most heart-breaking thing I encounter in my field is not when a life is lost—which of course is saddening—but when a patient is anguished over regrets they may have.

I have often said that palliative care is not so much about dying, as it is about living—about celebrating the life we’ve lived and those we have touched. Knowing that a life has been lived without regrets and to its fullest enables both the patient, and their loved ones, to approach the end with a certain amount of peace—peace that can be so critical to the grief process.

It may sound clichéd, but we all have a million reasons to put off doing something we want to do. Many of them may well be legitimate, and it serves no one to be bullied into making decisions we’re not ready to make. But in the end I think it boils down to this—if you or a loved one were reaching the end of your/their life, would you have any regrets?  I think the answer to that question serves as an invaluable life guide.