Reflections of a Volunteer

In Buddhist teaching, the story is told of a mother grieving the death of her only son. She takes his body to the Buddha to find a cure. The Buddha asks her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a family which has never lost a child, husband, parent or friend. When the mother is unable to find such a house in her village, she realizes that death is common to all and she cannot be selfish in her grief.

Before beginning my clinical internship as a marriage and family therapist twenty years ago, I volunteered at an agency that offered grief counseling. My first job was to read death certificates from the county coroner’s office, to identify the family member who would be contacted with the offer of free counseling

Each week I’d read through a stack of certificates. Although by that time I’d experienced the death of grandparents, one parent, a teenage friend killed by a hit-and-run driver as I stood nearby, and two co-workers in their thirties, it wasn’t until I held the pile of death certificates that I fully understood what this mother discovered in the tale of Buddha. I not only read the names of survivors, but also everything written about the deceased person’s disease and life. These were real people with real families and their lives had come to an end, whether quickly or slowly.

Twelve years ago, I came to the Living/Dying Project to be of service and to come to terms with my own mortality. In his training workshops and volunteer support group meetings, Dale Borglum makes clear that although the service we offer to people approaching the end of their lives is honorable and valuable, it is our own personal transformation that is at the heart of the work. The question eternally being asked is, “How do we contract when confronted with suffering, with the unknown represented by the end of life?”

I’ve written about my relationship with Will Carter, the longtime survivor of AIDS, and with Denlow, whose journey with Lou Gehrig’s disease inspired so many. But I haven’t written about the 33-year-old woman who died within six months of her diagnosis from a disease that mysteriously appeared shortly after her marriage; or about the woman who suffered for much of her life from what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder, and who’d lived on the street for years before pulling her life together and taking a job as a social worker; or about the man whose son was killed in Columbia by FARC rebels, who had so much anguish over that loss he was unprepared for his own passing; or the man whose home overlooked the Pacific Ocean, with whom I met each week and gazed toward the horizon, contemplating life’s complexities while saying farewell.

As Intake Coordinator for the Project, I meet with prospective clients, both to learn about their disease and to determine what they are seeking in the way of support, before a decision is made as to which volunteer will work with each person.

Most recently I met with a woman in her forties whose cancer appeared four years ago when her daughter was born. Despite remission and three years of relative health, the cancer returned. This woman died last summer, leaving behind her husband and two children. The poem Facing the Wall on the next page was written by one of our volunteers, Sandy Scull, about his work with her.

Reflecting back on these years, I’m aware of the gifts I’ve received as a volunteer. In my last article about Denlow’s passing, I wrote that my heart had been broken during my two years with him. But that could only happen because of what had come before.

First I learned humility, the awareness that nothing I might strive for or achieve will preserve me from the possibility of suffering or the certainty of dying. Secondly, I began opening my heart to those with whom I share this journey, recognizing that they are no more immune to the vicissitudes of life than I am. We are all in this together, doing the best we can to navigate the often-choppy waters of existence.

Of course, compassion for myself was a necessary precedent to finding compassion for others. As long as I was absorbed in my own “drama-trauma” story, I was incapable of real empathy. Service as a volunteer helped me to get out of myself, to begin attending to others.

Finally, gratitude appeared. Gratitude was easy, of course: every person with whom I’ve worked as a volunteer was younger than I am. Illness and death are not reserved for the old and infirm. Sitting with men and women as they prepared for their own death, I could not help marveling at what a gift each moment is. How could I not feel gratitude for this gift of life?

So humility, compassion and gratitude have become the bedrock of my life, gifts that have come from being of service to men and women willing to share their journey of living and dying. I am honored to attend these folks as they approach their end. All that is required of me is that I be willing, moment to moment, to remain open to them. My experience tells me that when I’m able to simply do that, their journey becomes easier. It also tells me that when I’m able to dis-identify from every story I concoct about who I am and what this journey is about, I become liberated. At that moment the words of the famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher Long chen pa ring in my ears:

Since everything is but an apparition,
perfect in being what it is,
having nothing to do with good or bad,
acceptance or rejection,
one may well burst out in laughter!

–Curtis Grindahl