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Coping with Loss, Sharing our Approach with Curry Senior Center Staff

Curry Senior Center is a non-profit in San Francisco dedicated to helping vulnerable, low-income, and homeless seniors through a holistic and integrated care approach. The organization runs a Peer Outreach Program in which Peer Outreach and Drop-in Center Specialists help connect isolated older adults to services and social activities.

Working with a vulnerable older population, the Outreach Specialists often witness their clients experiencing multiple losses, for example, loss of mobility, loss of social  connections and loss of their own living spaces as they move to assisted  housing. During the pandemic, however, the losses experienced by the staff and clients intensified, with a number of clients passing, and the Curry team also losing a member of staff to COVID-19.

To support their staff with such losses, and to prevent burnout and overwhelm that can accompany such experiences, Curry Senior Center approached Zen Caregiving Project (ZCP) to run two online, interactive sessions on managing loss and grief. 

The sessions

Working with loss and grief is a core part of Zen Caregiving Project’s approach to caregiving. When the organization was first established as Zen Hospice Project over thirty years ago, it served people approaching the end of their lives, and provided hospice care. Offering on-going support for persons at the end of life, the organization advanced a Buddhist-inspired approach to working with loss and grief, allowing individuals to both feel the emotions that loss brings, and also build the capacity to sit with the loss and reduce overwhelm. 

The sessions for the Outreach Specialists were based on this approach and were taught by Roy Remer, the organization’s Executive Director. In the four sessions he introduced five ways to working mindfully with loss:

  1. Understand the value of exploring our feelings on loss

Loss is something that everyone experiences and it is an inherent part of life. It is important to be aware of how we respond to our own losses, especially as caregivers. When we don’t work on how to process our own losses, it can be difficult to fully support the person receiving our care.  Others’ experience and reactions to loss may be triggering for us, and it is hard to untangle the pain and emotion of their loss from the pain and emotion of our own losses. 

  1.  Loss is universal

It can be comforting to remember that loss is a natural part of being human. While the particular circumstances of loss may differ from person to person, we all experience loss. It is unavoidable. If nothing else, the shared experience of loss is what reminds us that we are connected to everyone else. 

  1. Introducing mindfulness to work with grief and loss

Often our first response to grief is to deny it or turn away from this. Mindfulness techniques can be used to turn toward grief, allowing us to see what sensations and emotions are felt, and what thoughts we are having. Being with the emotions of grief allows for their processing. We can build our capacity to be with strong emotions and over time the emotions will begin to quiet. The sadness of loss may not go away, however, we may begin to find it is not as disrupting  or overwhelming. We begin to integrate the loss into the normal rhythms of our life. 

  1. Building compassion in the face of frequent loss

Caregivers may confront a lot of barriers to expressing compassion – these barriers can sometimes  be exhaustion, hunger or frustration, and sometimes it can feel like what we are doing doesn’t make a difference. A deeper understanding of the dynamics of compassion and the ways it can be used enable us to more readily recognize and overcome barriers when they arise.  Practicing compassion means also including oneself.  Self-compassion is essential for caregivers to build resilience and avoid burnout: “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” (see our free webinar on compassion for caregivers)

  1. Inviting conversations about loss with those we are care for

Conversations with care recipients about loss can feel awkward, but there are ways of approaching these conversations that help the other person open up, and feel supported. It is helpful to remember, in the face of loss we are all equals as no one can avoid personal loss and grief. In this regard, we are all alike. This thought naturally brings feelings of empathy and compassion for the person we care for. It is also helpful to notice if you are attached to a particular outcome for a conversation and perhaps let go,  trying to meet others where they are at. Maybe the person you care for isn’t yet ready for a big conversation on loss but providing an opportunity, may support them to get more comfortable with it over time. 

For a more detailed explanation of these five approaches please see our blog XXX

The impact of the sessions

The sessions were deeply moving for all involved, with staff sharing and connecting over common experiences and recognizing their own unique relationship with loss. The feedback we received from the session was very positive and it is our hope that the training will continue to support these staff persons in the important work they are doing in the community, as well as in their own personal wellbeing.

We would like to thank the Curry Senior Center for its holistic and compassionate approach to supporting its staff. For any enquiries on running sessions in your organization please contact us via our enquiry form.

Thank you, Irene!

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the death of our teacher, friend and colleague, Irene Smith. Irene died at home this week supported by a wide network of devoted friends and volunteers. Her wish was to remain in her Cole Valley apartment of 42 years until the end, and we accomplished that goal.

Irene participated in the first-ever Zen Hospice Project volunteer caregiver training over thirty years ago and joined us for nearly every one since. She generously shared her Touch Awareness practices later with family and professional caregivers as a Guest Instructor in our Mindful Caregiving Education courses. Irene reached a level of extraordinary renown worldwide for her work under the banner of her educational organization, Everflowing

We will dearly miss Irene’s care, brilliance, gentle gaze, and good humor. You can find out more about memorial services by visiting her Caringbridge page. 

Thank you for your service, dear Irene. May you rest in eternal peace

Learnings from 11 years at the bedside

John Rubin was a volunteer with Zen Caregiving Project for 11 years, serving at the bedside in the palliative care ward at Laguna Honda Hospital. He ended his volunteer service in 2020. Here he shares his story, and what he learned over his many volunteer shifts.

“In 2009, I was 72 and had just retired from a long career in business. I was looking for an activity that was different from my previous work and helped others.  The Volunteer Program at Zen Hospice Project, as it was then known, seemed the perfect fit. Every Tuesday morning for the next 11 years, I would make my way to Laguna Honda Hospital to visit the residents (patients) of the Palliative Care Ward, never knowing what the morning would bring.  

My 11 years with Zen Caregiving Project (ZCP) were rich and wonderful. The many residents I got to know were people I would never have met elsewhere in my life. What a gift to share time each week with them, the hard-working ward nurses, CNAs, and staff, and my many great ZCP shift mates. And so I wanted to share a few things that I learned from the experience, for current volunteers, anyone considering joining or actually, everybody! The experiences on the ward are just a microcosm of our experiences in our wider lives filled with connection, joy, loss and love.

  • Bring your whole self to what you do

    Volunteering with ZCP is about bringing your whole self to the residents, and leading with an open heart. My best moments volunteering came when I was totally focused on a resident. For example pushing a lady’s wheelchair back to the ward after a morning Baptist church service, while together humming and singing Amazing Grace. In that moment I knew “this is why I’m here today.” It helped me see that I can bring my whole self to whatever I am doing in life, focusing on the “here and now”. 
  • Drop expectations

    Just like in life, it was best not to come to a volunteer shift with a lot of expectations of what you want to have happen, and avoid giving yourself a grade afterwards about how things actually turned out. You learn to just let the day play out, and deal with whatever comes up.
  • We have to accept change 

    I learned a lot about impermanence. No shifts are ever the same. Patients who you get to know well, like to spend time with, and grow to love are going to die. It’s a world of constant flux and change. Everything changes.
  • Listen

    Our role as a volunteer is to Be With people rather than trying to Fix things that are out of our control. Our value as volunteers comes in just being with people and listening deeply to them. The stories patients share with you are what they want and need to say. Whether they’re true or not, doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are being heard.
  • Be yourself

    You are unique, and you will do things differently from others. In volunteering, we all had our different approaches – different but no better or worse. Just be yourself and bring energy, warmth, and loving-kindness to everyone you interact with.
  • We are all in this together

    We’re all in this life together. It’s good to realize that we may be the one in the bed at some future time with someone else being our caretaker. What would we want then?

The ZCP Volunteer Program is currently continuing remotely, with residents speaking with volunteers by iPads. 

To read more please see our blog from a volunteer on her experience of connecting virtually and another on how the volunteer experience has helped during the pandemic.