A Line of Disappearances: Grief and Helplessness During Shelter in Place

By Alistair Shanks

We are living in a time of disappearances. For the most part, we have been stripped of our distractions, our busyness, our schedules, and plans as we shelter in place. We are being forced to reorder our activities, our needs, our lives.

We are in a state of continual waiting,  a perpetual state of uncertainty. Like a dream, we are at the mercy of an alien, inimical force, invisible and unpredictable. The world has come to a standstill. Construction sites are silent, cranes still, businesses dark, the streets empty.

We are grieving the loss of normalcy, a sense of safety and order; everything has been upended. Nothing is normal. Leaving home feels risky, a trip to the grocery store dangerous. People have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods. People are dying alone in isolated units surrounded not by family and loved ones but by medical teams clad in protective gear.

While also grieving the loss of a sense of connection to others — friends, families, our broader social networks, work colleagues — new opportunities arise to connect in different ways, to offer small kindnesses. There are the friendly smiles and knowing nods as I pass masked people on the street, the greetings of strangers who would normally go by unnoticed. A woman offers a bottle of hand sanitizer to a homeless man outside a Safeway. Many people recognize that we are in this together, that we are all struggling to adjust to this new normal.

Our separation has only made more obvious our dependence on one another, our interconnection. We breathe the same air, share the same sidewalks and streets, depend on invisible supply chains to provide our food, our medications, our consumer goods. We are interdependent in every way, a fact that is easily lost in the daily tumult of overbooked lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, the cycles of life go on unperturbed. It is still spring and trees and flowers continue to bloom, only to disappear in their own time. The days become longer. In the absence of human activity, nature offers signs of reasserting itself: wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, mountain goats taking over a town in Wales, whales in Mediterranean shipping lanes, baby turtles in Brazil surviving in higher numbers due to deserted beaches.

And there is the fear, the vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, for once unable to distance ourselves from the world’s tragedies. It is no longer just an image of suffering on our TV screen. It is here and we are not in control, our lives moving in an arc out to the horizon, a line of disappearances. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I often point out to our volunteers that a lot of what we do as we sit with those suffering near the end of life is to also sit with our own sense of helplessness. We are simply witnesses to the pain and struggles of our fellow human beings. Our volunteers learn to be with discomfort, with uncertainty, helplessness, the unknown. In many cases, it is all we can do and it is no small thing. I have seen the impact of a single steady, mindful presence transform a room.

What can we do with our helplessness? In this time of upheaval, we have been shorn of our assumptions, our certainties. In our helplessness the only sane, rational response, as ever, is love. Maybe our task is, as the poet David Whyte writes, “To love and to witness love in the face of possible loss, and to find the mystery of love’s promise in the shadow of that loss.”

We all need self-care in times like this. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers are trained to practice self-compassion, to acknowledge doubts and difficulties, and hold them with tenderness and care. As Jack Kornfield has said, “In this moment we can sit quietly, take a deep breath, and acknowledge our fear and apprehension, our uncertainty and helplessness…and hold all these feelings with a compassionate heart.”

We can embrace our interdependence. We can turn to the person next to us and ask, “What is your experience? What is it like for you? How are you doing?”

And listen.
Listen deeply.

Webinar on Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers

This is a recording of our Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers presented on April 8, 2020 by Roy Remer.

In this free, online session for professional caregivers, Roy shares mindfulness-based tools to reduce stress and increase resilience and discusses ways to easily integrate these approaches into daily life.

The live online session was offered to support professional caregivers while they support so many others.


Online Resources During Shelter in Place

We’ve curated a list of resources to help you keep busy and maintain your peace of mind while the shelter in place order stands. Below are helpful links related to music, mindfulness, education, exercise, art, and nature. If you have resources to add, feel free to add them under our social media post for these resources.


Livestream from the Metropolitan Opera – Free livestream of Met Operas

Livestream classical music concerts – List of concerts


Headspace App – Mindfulness Meditation app

Self-retreat – Resources from Spirit rock teachers

San Francisco Zen Center – Access San Francisco Zen Center Online Learning wherever you are, anytime.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review – A series of live-stream meditations to help ease anxiety amid our social-distancing efforts.

Marin Sangha – Marin Sangha is a mindfulness meditation group in Marin County that puts special emphasis on living the dharma in daily life. All Sunday meetings start at 6:00pm PST.

Insight Timer – Many free meditations, can connect to others meditating at same time for sense of community online


Online courses – Free online courses from Ivy League schools: business, social science, programming, Art & Design, Math


Peloton – Yoga, strength training, at-home workouts free for 90 days

Yoga with Adrienne – Yoga for all levels + meditation, always free

Eckhart Yoga – A range of different yoga classes (some paid for but lots free)


Art museum virtual tours – Best on a laptop or computer, 12 tours of some of the world’s most famous art museums

More museum tours! – Virtually tour world-class museums from home

Eastern European Movies with English Subtitles – Free streaming foreign films

Nederlands Dance Theater – Free streaming contemporary ballet


Georgia Aquarium – Webcams at the Georgia Aquarium

Gardens Around the World – Virtually tour famous gardens around the world from home


Mo Willems “Lunch Doodles” – Children’s author teaches drawing on YouTube

Caregiver Resources

Caring Across Generations – Sessions sharing mindfulness-based tools and approaches to help you manage stress and anxiety and build your emotional resilience and self-care.

UCSF School of Medicine – Coping with Dementia Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic webinar series

Zen Caregiving Project – Four sessions sharing mindfulness-based techniques that you can integrate into daily life, to help reduce distress and increase self-care.

Family Caregiver Alliance – Family caregiver webinars are for family members, partners, and friends caring for a loved one living with a chronic or disabling health condition.

Let’s ReImagine – Each Daily Dose of Togetherness includes a reflection from a guest speaker and a chance to connect in small groups with your digital neighbors from around the world.

Volunteers and the Impact of Coronavirus

By Alistair Shanks

Driving down the winding roadways of the Laguna Honda campus, the first indication that something is amiss is the signs. Laminated signs affixed to A-shaped, folding barricades declare in bold yellow letters against a black background: “BY ORDER OF THE SF HEALTH OFFICER NO VISITORS ARE PERMITTED ON CAMPUS.”

With 780 beds, Laguna Honda Hospital is one of the largest skilled nursing facilities in the country. Our residents are the most at-risk segment of the population for the potentially dire consequences of COVID-19. They are largely elderly with a variety of chronic health conditions. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers serve patients near the end of life with terminal and chronic conditions and designated for comfort care on the Palliative Care Ward, S3. Some have families; many do not. Some have been estranged from family for years, even decades, and are without any social support network whatsoever.

Our volunteers received notice on March 2nd that all non-essential personnel would be barred from the campus. A few days later, families were also prohibited from visiting. In light of the threat posed by COVID-19, it was a necessary and timely intervention. But it has also left residents stranded and more alone. To fill that gap, volunteers have been sending cards and even reaching out via email to some residents. It is a small gesture, but one that will let them know they are not forgotten.

Over time, the volunteers who serve on S3 develop deep and intimate bonds with residents who live there. We are witnesses to their struggles and suffering as well as their joy and wisdom. The open secret about sitting with death and dying and approaching suffering with an undefended heart is that the residents become our teachers. As much as we give to them in the form of time and attention and love, we get back from them many times over in love, appreciation, and insight. This may be unspoken, or it can be explicit.

During a visit with a resident in his room, one volunteer revealed to him that he was a retired ophthalmologist. The resident, an elderly Filipino man, said this:
“Eyes are a mystery.”
“How so?” asked the volunteer.
“You can’t understand eyes until you know what they’ve seen.”

It seems that we are about to see more than we bargained for. Our certainties have been pierced. There are no guarantees. We can only meet this moment with open hearts. I feel myself teetering between a sense of unreality and the relentless reality of it all. And I am grateful for the love and privilege that I do have: a strong community of colleagues and caregivers, a devoted partner, being able to work from home.

Outside it is spring, and trees are blooming all over the city, plum and magnolia. The days are becoming longer, stretching into the evening, a whisper of promise. There is a sense of what Pico Iyer refers to as “radiance and melancholy.” The world is quiet. Almost everything feels frozen in time. There is a stillness, an air of expectancy, a collective breath holding as we wait for the wave to hit, an eerie pregnancy to this moment. It is almost time for the cherry blossoms.

NOTE: On Tuesday, March 31st it was announced that ten staff members of Laguna Honda Hospital and two patients had tested positive for the coronavirus. About 160 staff and 60 residents have been tested for the virus.

Love in the Time of Corona

There is no need to tell any of you what a challenging time we are living in. Life has really changed, and it has happened very quickly. There are so many uncertainties we are all facing. How bad will the pandemic get? How long will it last? Who will be the next among us to fall ill? In such times, what we need most is love.

I am moved by the irony of how my heart has opened to strangers at a time when we are cautioned against being out in public. Sheltering in my home with my wife and dog, I am constantly awakened to the present moment by deep feelings of appreciation for people I don’t even know. I am feeling an urge to thank everyone- the mail carriers, the store clerks, the employees of Zoom, neighbors staying out of their cars and walking around the neighborhood, the children playing soccer in the street, the neighbors who planted the flowers in bloom, the utility workers who keep at it, the medical workers who are hidden in the places I hope I don’t visit anytime soon. The list is endless.

In our Mindful Caregiver Education courses, we teach ways of keeping compassion activated amidst the demanding circumstances of caregiving. We draw upon the ancient wisdom traditions and the most recent science to explain how to access our deep and innate well of compassion. I am finding these teachings extremely relevant during this time of Corona.

For many, accessing compassion for strangers is extremely difficult. In the world we live in, this is quite common. Thupten Jinpa, in his wonderful book A Fearless Heart, explains that acknowledging two essential truths about all humans is helpful for breaking down the barriers we put up between us and strangers. One, all beings strive for happiness and freedom from suffering. And two, beings are dependent upon each other for their very existence; we survive because of our interdependence. When we stop to think about it, we see it is absolutely true. Just take a moment to think of all the beings who have played a part in bringing you your most recent meal. Again, the list is endless.

When life has been turned on its head and I am wondering if there will be toilet paper on the shelves of my local market when I run out, I can’t help but think about those people who are working hard to see that it is there for me to purchase. And, when I wake up in the morning and remember that I am not going into work, I think of all the faces I will not be seeing. And, when I turn on the radio or pick up the newspaper, I think of all the people who have been impacted by this pandemic. How are all these strangers holding up?

Just like me, all beings want to be happy and free from suffering. And, just like me, all beings are dependent upon others. The wise teacher Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.” Even when we are confined to our homes, nothing could be truer. So, when fear and feelings of isolation creep in, turn toward compassion. Turn toward love. It is really needed right now. And, I think it is what will allow us to emerge out of this difficult time better off than we were before.