So I spent last night in the presence of death and two exes: exhilaration and exhaustion. And with a marvelous improvisational violinist, Shira Kammen, whose ephemeral music was fitting for the occasion.
There were others there with me, an auditorium filled with people, to discuss the “usefulness” of poetry as a way of transforming end-of-life experiences.
Think of it as a conflagration of physicians, caregivers, and poets, lighting fires for the dying all in the name of poetry.
It was the last in a series of events led by Jane Hirshfield, Hellman Visiting Artist in Residence at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and sponsored by the Hellman family.
“Poetry & the End of Life” was intense and moving, with prominent UCSF physicians, Buddhist teachers and founders of the Zen Hospice Project talking about their experiences with death and patients facing death.
Here are a few fleeting images that I have not yet had the time to fully process:
A physician telling of his mother’s death experience and then being brought back to life. She was profoundly disappointed to find herself still alive when she regained consciousness.
A physician describing how medical school has changed in the past 30 years. When he was a student, death was never mentioned. Today, medical students are now required to take courses on death and end-of-life care. And the team at the UCSF Center on Memory and Aging now use poetry as a way to cope with and make sense of the tremendous amount of death and loss they deal with every day, actions that appear to be the result (at least in part) of Jane Hirshfield’s year-long residency at the center.
Other notes from speakers:
The bones of ones ancestors rise to the surface during the dying process.
From Jewish tradition: When we fulfill our obligations to help one another, we are enriched. Helping someone die well enriches our own lives.
Care at end-of-life should transform from a drive to cure to a drive to accompany the dying on their journey.
Dying is not just a medical event. We must strip away all of the ways we have defined ourselves, sit down and have a cup of tea with death. We may find that we are not the separate selves that we have taken ourselves to be.
The stripping away process also reveals that the millions we may have made (or not), the trappings of success that we have strived for (or not achieved), is not what defines ourselves as human beings.
Death Poems, traditionally written near the time of death by the person who is dying, is a practice started by Zen monks. One death poem recited by Frank Ostaseski, a co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, was written by an old woman who had been homeless and on the streets of San Francisco six months before her death. The poem was phenomenal, but I wasn’t able to transcribe it word for word. The woman asked Frank to commit it to memory so that she could be cremated with the poem. He did, and he recalled it from memory last night. The video of the event will be posted sometime in January. You can find it at www.youtube.com/UCSFMemoryAndAging. (I’m sorry. It is no longer available on Youtube.)
You can read examples of death poems here: Japanese Death Poems
Several of the death poems read during the evening ended on a hopeful note, with the authors not just being resigned to but welcoming the process. Some even went so far as to suggest that death was the beginning of the next stage of life.
One physician spoke of his bout with leukemia and how he found poetry to be profoundly helpful in getting through the experience of being near death. Despite this experience, he told the audience that he has not yet “found the courage to use poetry in his practice with his patients.”
I’m thinking that his thoughtful presentation was just his second step toward adding poetry to his clinical practice. He read and discussed Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “On Prayer.”
He also discussed the following poems:
Raymond Carver, after learning he had lung cancer: “What the Doctor Said” – saying that Georgetown University is using this poem in their “Interacting with the Medical Humanities” curriculum.
Donald Hall: “Without” written after his wife, Jane Kenyon, died.
John Stone (cardiologist): “Talking to the Family” where we get to see the physician put on his white coat, confront a family and patient with the bad news, weep with the family, then take off the white coat and go home to change a lightbulb in the hall.
Derek Walcott: “Love After Love“The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving…
At the end of the evening, Jane Hirshfield shared one last poem:
Catullus on his brother’s death:By strangers’ coasts and waters, many days at sea, I came here for the rites of your unworlding…
I find the use of the word “unworlding” to be extremely satisfying and descriptive of death’s process.
Perhaps it’s because I identified with one of the speakers who called himself “precociously morbid,” or because I’ve spent some time editing academic work on death and dying, or because I’ve reached the five-year point of my mother’s death and the one-year point of my father’s, it was heartening to commune with folks who are thinking deeply about death and dying and are “using” poetry to lift up so many lives.
I can only hope that I will eventually have the choice to die well, surrounded by poetry and the people who know and love me.
I wish the same for you.