This is National Hospice Volunteer Appreciation Week. This is the week we had originally planned to have our beautiful volunteer appreciation luncheon at Green Pastures. That is, before the world turned upside down taking most of our plans with it. We have rescheduled that lovely event for late August when we hope we may be able to safely gather. We will know more as that time approaches.
In the meantime, I would love for you to imagine yourself sitting at a table spread with a nice white linen table cloth; a plate of your favorite food before you; beautiful flowers as a centerpiece; soft spring light shining through the windows and onto the wonderful, loving, kind faces of the Hospice Austin Volunteers sitting all around you.
Here is what I would say to us if we were all together…
Precarity is a word I learned recently. It means living with a constant sense of uncertainty; being acutely aware of life’s fragility; keenly feeling how precarious things actually are. Precarity is where you find yourself when there’s a serious health issue; a job loss; a breach in a relationship. A global pandemic. And so precarity is a place in which many of us throughout the world have found ourselves these past few weeks. And frankly, it’s really uncomfortable. If you are like me you are head over heels in love with certainty; with knowing how things will turn out; with having more agency over your comings and goings. So I want to acknowledge how hard this place is for so many right now. If that’s where you are, I hope there are moments of relief when everything feels good and sort of normal. Maybe for a little while when you are out for a walk or cooking supper, listening to music or laughing on the phone, watching a movie playing with your child and you feel light, peaceful, and happy. But there are also those middle of the night wake up calls from within disrupting our sleep with thoughts about what is happening, what may happen, and how this might unfold.
A number of years ago my husband and I took our sons, then 5 and 7, on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, an awe-inspiring train trip through the remote Copper Canyon in Mexico. The scenery was spectacular, the experience unforgettable. During the epic 20 hour ride the train stopped quite a few times for passengers to get on or off and a few times for no apparent reason. One seemingly random stop was especially memorable. We were well into the journey, the tracks seeming to cut directly through the canyon itself, the vistas grand and majestic. As we were crossing a railway bridge our train slowed to a stop, nothing between us and the vast emptiness below but the steel tracks and the stone bridge. We joined other passengers at the open windows between the cars to feel the cool, fresh air and look out at the view. As we stood there holding the boys up so they could see, our five year old, Patrick, asked quietly while peering over the edge, Mama, are we going to fall off? I quickly reassured him (and myself?!) that we were safe and would get to the other side without falling. But in that moment I remember his question hanging in the air and feeling his precarity reach in and touch my own.
That’s what life has felt like lately. Like being on a train suspended over space by a narrow bridge as we look at the chasm below and then longingly ahead to where safety and some kind of normalcy surely awaits us. My sense is that we are being invited to BE on the train during this strange in-between place in the best way we can. So how do we do that? How do we manage to live in precarity without losing ourselves and each other to our fears, frustrations, and grief?
One thing that has always helped me in times of uncertainty is to remind myself of what we know for sure. For example, we know without a doubt that we have been through hard things before; that we come from people who have survived incredible hardships; that we are loving, generous, kind, and resilient. When we remember the best of who we are it allows us to draw more easily from that well of strength.
Another helpful thing when precarity threatens to overwhelm is to write down what is in our control and what is not; moving to action where we are able and letting go of the rest.
It occurs to me that those of us who work or volunteer for Hospice Austin are especially equipped to meet this challenging time because we are as equally acquainted with precarity as we are trained and experienced in providing palliative care. Palliative care is the very essence of meeting the present for what it is instead of what we wish it would be. Palliative care is asking, what is needed right now; what would make things 10% more comfortable; what does love look like in this moment?
I would like to suggest as we settle into the messy middle of this pandemic that we apply the emotional and relational skills we have honed for providing palliative care in order to bring comfort and compassion for ourselves and those around us.
Dr. Kristen Neff, UT professor, author, and creator of a program called Mindful Self Compassion, encourages all of us, but especially caregivers, to take frequent self-compassion breaks. A self-compassion break looks like this:
- Step One: Bring to mind something difficult in your life. Become aware of the emotional discomfort in your body and, while deepening and slowing your breathing say to yourself something like: This is painful; this is a moment of suffering; this hurts.
- Step Two: Continue to take slow, calming breaths and say to yourself: Suffering is a part of life; I’m not alone; many people are suffering right now as well; this experience is part of being human.
- Step Three: Put your hands over your heart, or on your heart and your belly, and say to yourself: May I be kind to myself; may I have compassion; may I forgive; may I accept myself and this moment just as it is.
Precarity is the moment we are living in. It’s not easy and most of us are ready to get safely to the other side of this scary railroad bridge. To do that we need one another, all of us, working together to keep one another safe, fed, and well cared for. We also need self-compassion. Lots of it. More than ever. Because, while we have been through other hard things, we haven’t ever been through this particular hard thing. We are each being invited to stretch and grow right now in no uncertain terms. Ask any child or teenager going through a growth spurt and they will remind you that growth hurts. So remember to breathe through the pain and the precarity. Give out grace every chance you get. Take frequent self-compassion breaks. And remind yourself that, sweetheart, you are making it one step, one day, one week at a time. Together we will somehow get to the other side. We don’t know what life will look like over there. But we do know that in the meantime, by simply practicing self-compassion, we may become more loving, more present, and more alive than we ever thought possible.
I wish we could be together right now. Thank you for being YOU, for being a Hospice Austin Volunteer, for making the world a sweeter, more generous place just by your presence in it.
Director of Bereavement and Volunteer Services