What Are You Being Called to Do?
Back in 2019 before the outbreak of COVID and all the lockdowns, I was asked to be a plenary speaker at an annual conference hosted by the Vancouver Island Federation of Hospices in British Columbia. I will never forget the initial phone conversation about the topics they were inviting me to explore. The representative asked if I could simply speak to burnout, the increasing requests for MAiD (medical assistance in dying) and the heart-breaking rise in the number of deaths in BC due to drug overdoses of younger people. This was clearly impacting those doing end of life care and offering bereavement support. Again, all this at play before COVID. I sat in silence on the other end of the phone thinking “Seriously? She’s got to be kidding!” Then I asked her “How much time do I have?” She said, “Oh about an hour. Maybe a little longer.” I said, “Really? You want me to summarize all that in such a short period of time?” “Yes”, she said, “I know you can do it!” The audience would be a range of professionals working in end-of-life care, bereavement support, and hospice volunteers.
A long pause again on my end. My goodness, how could one possibly take such sensitive issues and turn them into a brief presentation sincerely honouring the hearts and humanity of those in attendance? Told her I needed time to think about it and would get back to her. Eventually I agreed but had to sit and contemplate on the deeper truth at play. At the core of all those themes is the experience of witnessing another’s suffering. The truth we don’t have control over life as much as we would like to believe we do, and our own fears of death, resulting in our inherent survival instincts being triggered. Our need to grieve and mourn well in this work is paramount. Yet, also at play is the profound resilience of the human spirt and the ongoing mystery of life itself. For many who would participate, the call to better serve their community was a distinct influencing factor.
My presentation initially began by reminding everyone in the room that at any point they could choose to leave their positions. No one was holding them to this type of work or the roles they played in end-of-life care. They weren't obligated to do this work if they didn't feel suited for it or if it was too much. All had the freedom to make another life choice. If they needed a rest or time away from the work, making that choice was honourable as well. No judgement. Taking a leave of absence to respect their own self care, a noble decision. Much like sensitive turning points in a long-term partnership, they could stay, contemplate a re-investment in the union, or go. Move onto work they felt more suited too.
Then I invited them to reflect on the inspiration that initially “called” them to serve others in this capacity? Long before real life collided with their romantic expectations of how they perceived things “should” be. Experiences that could support or challenge their values and potentially stir conflicts within. How does one reconcile the two?
There is a beautiful quote worthy of sharing here. It is from a presentation given by Steven Spielberg years ago about his own "call" to a career in film making and the art of story telling. He says….
“The thing I really want to emphasize is that I didn't have a choice, I didn't have a choice...the dream is something you never knew was going to come into your life. Dreams always come from behind you, not right between your eyes. It sneaks up on you. But when you have a dream, it doesn’t often come at you screaming in your face, “This is who you are, this is what you must be for the rest of your life." Sometimes a dream almost whispers. And I have always said to my kids, the hardest thing to listen to --your instincts, your human personal intuition--always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear. So, you have to every day of your lives be ready to hear what whispers in your ear; it very rarely shouts. And if you can listen to the whisper, and if it tickles your heart, and it’s something you think you want to do for the rest of your life, then that is going to be what you do for the rest of your life, and we will benefit from everything you do.”
Personally, I have had to revisit my commitment to this work many times over the decades I have been involved. In fact, just recently spent the last number of months wondering if I should continue with my “In Autumn’s Cocoon” platform or do something else completely different? Still maintaining the YouTube series of "Inspiring, Heartfelt Conversations". It has not necessarily been easy to launch a workshop/speaking platform just before and during the COVID lockdowns. As mentioned earlier, conversations around death often stir our greatest fears and survival instincts.
Going back to my initial experience as a hospice volunteer over thirty years ago, what began with tremendous resistance, later turned into profound gratitude. In the quiet, where no one needed to know my name, was an invitation to offer gentle acts of service to those in tender life transitions. To be honest, my time as a hospice volunteer continues to be filled with some of my most cherished memories because it was pure in original intent. A simple engagement to honour what is, be in the moment and bring love and compassion to all involved. Including myself. Didn’t matter if I had a degree, just a requirement to bring compassion, dedication, and respect for the work I was being asked to do. Those initial years proved to be invaluable and became an important foundation for my professional career in hospice care.
More and more I reflect on how we (myself included) often make end of life care more difficult than it need be at times. Yes, absolutely, the systems are challenged right now and the call for change paramount. Many of the present structures are struggling under the weight of increasing demands. Despite my family's best efforts, my father, who I loved dearly, had a heart-breaking death in an extended care facility during COVID that I will one day perhaps have the courage to share. Tears surface as I write this. Still processing it all. But I do also know that when those who work in this field take the time to slow, do their personal work, bringing love and compassion into the present moment, transformation does occur. Moving out of the head and leading with the heart a gift. Even if it is just for a brief moment. Simplicity's wisdom is felt. Challenges can then take on a new, expanded, and curious dimension with ease in resolution.
So, I ask those doing this work to contemplate on these questions.… Is your role in end-of-life care meant to be a short-term affair? When that initial passion and curiosity fades will something else catch your interest, spurring you to move on? A union, as they say, for merely a season or a reason, taking all that you have learned to the next encounter? Or is it more like a long-term union/partnership in which you are being asked to grow and refine within yourself where you stand? Recommit to not only grow yourself and heal but as you change and are refined, to bring a new perspective to this profound and fascinating work? Open more fully to the beauty that is also at play amongst the challenges?
They say a changed perspective causes each situation to be viewed and experienced in a whole new way. How true.
Listen honestly to your heart and the gentle whispers to guide. What are you truly being “called” to do? Stay, re-invest along with refining your own self care, or go? Only you can answer that question, but it is an important one due to the effect not only on your heart and being but on those you serve.
Take gentle care of your hearts.