Our final posting on the theme of Acceptance is by Mo Henderson. In it, she describes the experiences of Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, in the book, ‘Dear Life’ alongside her own experience of acceptance. Finally, she shares the poem The Summer’s Day by Mary Oliver.
She argues there is a difference between people who know they’re dying and those who live as though we have all the time in the world! It is basically about human connections and being able to live life each day and all that it brings, in an honest wholehearted way. The stories she shares speak of the joys, suffering, sadness and expectations of her patients and their families and how the staff in the hospice work to help create an environment where truths, regrets, illusions and potential loss can be accepted and even transcended to allow space for many to welcome new possibilities, even in the sunset of their lives.
When she first began this work, she talks of her initial temptation to assure patients (dishonestly) that all will be well and of her own struggle not to defer grief with false promises and magical thinking. Given all her subsequent experience, what she does have is confidence to tell them that people’s fears about the manner in which they will die do not match their lived reality, this is based on the thousands of patients under her care.
There are very moving stories of how people care selflessly for their loved ones, whether they are the patient or the carer, with the awareness of another’s needs having been listened to and scrupulously attended to fully. Those who have lived alone, often experience a renewal of life at the hospice leading to new comforts, friendship and gratitude.
At one point in the book, Dr Rachel speculates:
“Maybe you only really appreciate the joy of being alive when you accept that all of it, every single one of your experiences, is destined to be lost. That’s when you savour it. Maybe death makes us love life.” 1.
— Rachel Clarke
Change and loss are a part of living and grief can be suffered on many different levels. It struck me that I must have lost many moments of dear life when I have felt fearful of future possibilities or pondered over past losses and regrets. I guess we’re all human and vulnerable to a preoccupation with our fears and trying to make ourselves comfortable for the future. Fears and regrets really exist when they come to mind, to accept them when they arise without projection or excessive self-blame, letting them die naturally when they dissolve is not always an easy task.
For me, learning to live with losing a close family member through a sudden accident has involved a deep acceptance and much work to manoeuvre around the obstacles of distraction and habit. In the early years of grief, I would throw myself into projects of work to avoid what I thought would be an inevitable falling apart. After some years, I noticed the feeling of falling apart was part of the reality and gradual acceptance cleared space for healing naturally. Perhaps the falling apart was letting go of a grip on my story? Still, there are times for tears and joyful gratitude for the time we had together and the love we share. In hindsight, even the distractions may have been shock absorbers, filters to help guide through the transitions of life. Good friends who listen and a supportive community are so beneficial, which is similar to what the hospice offers too, albeit in a smaller way and more limited in time.
“To see and accept the feelings behind the story is important; it is those feelings we need to accept and then discover how they dissolve in our acceptance.” 2.
This is what struck me about the book, the way patients’ stories and subsequent needs are listened to in the safety of the hospice environment. Encouraging people to express real needs and know themselves in a natural sense, allowing space for respite from underlying fears about life and death. I don’t know how I will be when faced with my own impending death and would like to think I will accept things as they are. How many times have I tried to justify why things are this way or that way based on the knowledge of my own story? Simply having faith to accept things and to still question life’s conditions is important. I question my responses to the current changing conditions of life, the suffering of others with the pandemic, wars and the deep sadness that comes with all that. What is it that helps now?
Acceptance is already present in reality, life is happening all around, listening and seeing it as it is, is not dependent on our personal stories, but calls for our part to be played within the world of changing conditions. What is the next step, whether brightly alive or dying?
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes?
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? 3.
1. Rachel Clarke Dear Life (page 81)
2. Buddha Recognises Buddha-Daishin Morgan (page 69)
3. Mary Oliver ‘The Summer Day’