I serve as a volunteer for the Eastern Palliative Care Association. For those who may not know, palliative care is usually care given to people with incurable, terminal illnesses, with a typical remaining life prognosis of 3-6 months. So in other words, people who are dying. I am a client-facing volunteer, so I spend 1-2 hours a week with a client, obviously until they pass away. I have been at it for 5 years now, and I am with my 7th client at the moment.
What do I do in my time with them? Anything and everything under the sun – a lot of talking obviously, clients invariably talk about their lives, their highs and lows, loves and regrets, some talk frankly about their imminent death and their fears, anxieties and also hopes about it. Others don’t ever bring death up. Some clients have event asked me to tell them what I know of what happens when people die. I have played quite a few intense games of chess with a few clients, read books to others, meditated with some, or simply sat by their bed-side holding their hands.
Why do I do this? Well, as I started to seriously think about things 6-7 years ago, I felt a strong urge to give something meaningful back in gratitude for whatever life had bestowed upon me. I thought of approaching some not-for-profit organisations and offering my help perhaps in their management or board governance. But around that time, I read Sogyal Rinpoche’s “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”. He explained how in Tibetan Buddhism, death is considered the most important moment in life. It is a point at which a fully self-realised soul has the unique opportunity to break free from the cycle of birth and death. So entrenched is this belief for them, that they prepare all their lives to die well, and also do whatever it takes to help others die well also. Sogyal Rinpoche posed the question; “What better gift can you give to anyone than the gift of your understanding, compassion and assurance as they die?”
This question struck me like a bolt of lightning, and led me to become a volunteer for Eastern Palliative Care.