Frank Ostaseski shares his stories and insights from a half-century of groundbreaking work in end-of-life care.
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
—Kozan Ichiyo, death poem dated 1360
Some writings from his book, The Five Invitations:
—Suppose we stopped compartmentalizing death, cutting it off from life. Imagine if we regarded dying as a final stage of growth that held an unprecedented opportunity for transformation. Could we turn toward death like a master teacher and ask, “How, then, shall I live?”
Walking in, I followed my natural inclination: I went over to (seven-year old) Jamie’s bed, leaned down, and kissed him on the forehead to say hello. The parents broke into tears because, while they had cared for him with great love and attention, nobody had touched the boy since he had died.
I am not romantic about dying. It is hard work. Maybe the hardest work we will ever do in this life. It doesn’t always turn out well. It can be sad, cruel, messy, beautiful, and mysterious. Most of all it is normal. We all go through it.
None of us get out of here alive.
I learned that the activities of caregiving are themselves quite ordinary. You make soup, give a back rub, change soiled sheets, help with medications, listen to a lifetime of stories lived and now ending, show up as a calm and loving presence. Nothing special. Just simple human kindness, really. Yet I soon discovered that these everyday activities, when taken as a practice of awareness, can help awaken us from our fixed views and habits of avoidance.
When I sit at the bedsides of people who are dying, my primary goal is to keep my heart open. I feel that I have a responsibility to support them wherever they are in their journey.
The attachment to the role of helper goes deep for most of us. If we’re not careful, if we become wedded to this role, it will imprison us and those we serve. Because let’s face it: if I am going to be a helper, then somebody has to be helpless.
Grief is like a stream running through our lives, and it is important to understand that loss doesn’t go away. It lasts a lifetime. It is our relationship to a particular loss that changes. It won’t always hold the same intensity for us, or take the same expression. But the grief as a natural human response to loss will remain, and our resistance to it will only intensify the pain.
I prefer the word intimacy because it is an invitation to come closer, to fully embrace and lovingly engage with your life right where you are, rather than trying to move beyond it. It is a recognition that we already belong.
An internationally respected Buddhist teacher, Frank Ostaseski is the visionary cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, and Metta Institute. He has sat on the precipice of death with more than a thousand people. He has trained countless clinicians and caregivers in the art of mindful and compassionate care.
In The Five Invitations, he distills lessons gleaned from death and his life of service. This book is an evocative and relevant guide that points to a radical path for transforming the way we live.