Rehearsing for Life and Death

I think after a year and a half of working at a cancer support and wellness center in the D.C. metro area, I am just coming to understand what drew me to this work. I volunteer once a week to lead a mindfulness meditation group.
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A little boy of my acquaintance is worried about death and graveyards and ghosts. I have been thinking of comforting ways to talk to him about this -- something that might be accessible to a 6-year-old. In the midst of my musings I awoke to the fact that I am just as afraid as he, although ghosts and graveyards don't really bother me so much. It seems that the predations and losses of aging are my own version of his preoccupation. The inevitable debility in the body, losing loved ones, mourning recent losses -- these are my ghosts.

I think after a year and a half of working at a cancer support and wellness center in the D.C. metro area, I am just coming to understand what drew me to this work. I volunteer once a week to lead a mindfulness meditation group. I have not been officially trained to do so. This is in itself remarkable. I am, however, a qualified, trained, and experienced therapist and a fairly longtime practitioner of meditation myself, but my teaching experience is not particularly in this genre. In the group we mix it up with other practices, and I am always drawing on my skills and various tools acquired as a therapist to deepen and broaden the experience for my very enthusiastic group of meditators.

Remarkably, the changes in those individuals who come consistently and even attempt to practice at home are discernible to themselves and to me, sometimes in a short period of time.

The members of the group declaim rather loudly and proudly about the benefits and positive energy of the group -- they testify to and regularly recruit new members. But I am quite aware that my benefit is at least as great as theirs. It is the high point in my week. Really.

There is the pleasure in doing something that is popular, useful, and positive. But beyond that, I think I benefit greatly from my relationship with members of the group and with the group as a whole: their optimism, their strength, their ability to grow in the face of terrifying, often painful, and always life-threatening conditions.

Many are dealing with the long-term effects of treatment, more than the threat to their lives. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation leave a variety of "gifts" behind. The hair grows back, but the neuropathy in hands and feet does not necessarily abate. "Chemo brain" may recede, but memory may never be quite the same for some. Unanticipated pain may linger for quite some time after radiation. Anxiety may take up permanent residence, and thin places in the fabric of family life may become deep fissures.

I get a front row seat on how individuals are dealing with these challenges to their bodily integrity and mortality. Mostly what I see are courage, dignity, and grace under fire. Of course, it's only an hour a week and a self-selected group of individuals who are well enough to sit and listen to the sound of my voice directing them to more peaceful places inside of themselves. And I don't observe the moments of sheer terror and rage that walk beside them as well. But these glimpses of resilience in the woman who dons a stylish chapeau to cover her sparse hair, or manages to look fetching in her outfit despite the loss of 25 pounds or so, enrich my spirit. The man who teaches himself and practices piano to deal with his overwhelming anxiety and depression, and the generous cordiality and even gratitude of those who face the final stages of their disease, inspire and soothe me.

This opportunity to bring comforting practices and to learn from my meditators represents for me a kind of rehearsal for what is inevitable in all of our lives. Unless we die suddenly, we do need preparation for the last chapter and the loss of those close to us. There are few models available, for most of death and dying are hidden. We cannot model ourselves on the brave and the resilient if we don't know them, if we don't see them. They are hidden in nursing homes, hospitals, or hidden away at home. They are for the most part unidentified. I have the unusual privilege of meeting, working with and learning from many.

I learned to teach graduate students, something I was also terrified of, by "channeling" one of my most admired teachers and then pretending I was him. I faked it until I made it.

Sounds like a plan.

For more by May Benatar, Ph.D., LCSW, click here.

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