Bethany Becker joined the ZCP Board of Directors in April 2021. She is a ZCP Volunteer, Senior Director of Marketing at Plume, and the owner of an adorable puppy called Ned. Here she tells us a bit more about how she got involved with ZCP, her experiences with caregiving, and the opportunities she sees for ZCP in the future.
How did you originally hear about ZCP and what drew you to the organization?
I first read an article about Zen Caregiving Project (then known as Zen Hospice Project) in early 2017 and something immediately clicked with me. The organization and its mission resonated in part due to my own experience with my grandmother’s death in 2015. That was my first time witnessing someone at the end of their life and actively dying. We were very lucky to have in-home hospice, with a comforting nurse who demystified the whole dying process. She transformed the experience for my entire family.
When I learned about Zen Hospice Project, I realized that there was a whole movement around caring for people who were ill or reaching the end of their life, and that was a real revelation for me.
What’s your involvement been with the organization?
Having read the article, I knew I wanted to get involved with the organization in some way. I attended some of ZCP’s courses, including an incredibly powerful Open Death Conversation. In that session, there was a young person dealing with a cancer diagnosis and a resident from the Guest House (the hospice facility that ZCP used to run) who was there with her family. It re-emphasized the importance of the organization’s work.
After that session, I started helping out at workshops and events and volunteered my skills in marketing and strategy to support the office team. I completed my bedside caregiver training through the Volunteer Program in May 2019 and have served as a volunteer caregiver since then.
What excites you about being on the Board and what do you hope to bring to the Board?
Having witnessed the positive impact of the Volunteer Program on both residents and volunteers, I believe strongly in ZCP’s mission to support caregivers. Being part of the Board allows me to give back to the organization in new and important ways and support them in this mission. I try to bring the perspectives of a volunteer, caregiver and marketing professional to my role on the Board.
The organization has gone through change and growth in the last few years, including a change of name and a broadening of scope to include supporting people and their caregivers at all stages of the illness journey. I hope to support this continued development and growth as ZCP evolves. Raising awareness and providing support at the end of someone’s life is vital, but in the time we are living in, caregiving more generally is equally important.
What do you see as the big opportunities for ZCP?
I think ZCP has a very important role to play in raising awareness of the caregiving crisis we are in right now. Professional, clinical and family caregivers who support our society are taking on multiple roles, but their work is often invisible, undervalued and inadequately supported. Caregivers are burning out and don’t have the resources they need to care for themselves or others. Nearly all of us will be caregivers at some point in our lives, so it is crucial to bring awareness to the important, rewarding, challenging and very human work of caring for another person.
Zen Hospice Project played an important role in raising awareness about end of life and palliative care, and pioneered a new and more holistic approach to the dying process. The approach emphasized meeting people where they were and providing emotional and spiritual support beyond pure medical care. It is my hope that Zen Caregiving Project can similarly help change the conversation around caregivers. Caring for a caregiver helps everyone, including the person they’re caring for, their family and their employer.
Over the course of ZCP’s lifetime, the organization has built up a great body of knowledge, resources and practices. There is so much valuable learning and collective experience from the years it has operated, the cohorts of volunteers that have served and the range of teachers that have shaped the organization. This wealth of deep knowledge has led to the development of the Mindful Caregiving Education curriculum that is already being used in many ways across different populations. There is a huge opportunity for ZCP to expand this content to a wider audience that could benefit from its teachings.
How has your experience with ZCP influenced your own caregiving?
For me, the Volunteer Program training was incredibly powerful, as was serving by the bedside in Laguna Honda Hospital. I learned that there often is no “right” thing to do or say. Sometimes you can’t make things better, but the point is being there, fully, for someone in that moment. Just being present.
This experience helped me a lot when I cared for my mother after a very serious neck and back surgery. I was her caregiver for two months and had a totally different level of patience and understanding with my mom than I would have previously. And I also had more patience for myself! My experience with ZCP prepared me to be a better caregiver for others, and that is partly because it taught me to also take care of myself.
On March 2nd, Laguna Honda Hospital, where Zen Caregiving Project volunteers have served for over 30 years, announced volunteers would not be permitted on campus indefinitely due to COVID-19. In my third year as a volunteer, that meant I would not gather with my shift mates at 9 AM the following morning for meditation and check-in prior to my regular Wednesday morning volunteer shift on the palliative care ward. Soon afterward, our family’s school district announced that Friday, March 13, would be the last day of school for our three kids meaning we had to manage two weeks of improvised homeschool before the originally-scheduled Spring Break.
First and foremost I am grateful for our safety and health. In addition to this feeling of gratitude each day since then, I have awoken acutely aware that I and my family members are grappling with how to handle the uncertainty we are facing at so many levels. Will any of us get sick? Will any of our family members get sick? Will we be okay financially? When will this end? Will there be a vaccine? Why aren’t our leaders doing more to protect healthcare workers? If everything is canceled, what are we supposed to do?
For my family, our busyness in our “normal” lives had given us a false sense of control and purpose. Our lives had been filled with non-stop “doing” and whether we liked it or not, we were now being pushed, kicking and screaming, to exist in the present – to simply be in the absence of all of our normal things to do. And it has been really difficult.
One of the precepts that guides our practice as volunteer caregivers is to “cultivate don’t know mind.” The idea is that most of us in our daily lives are strongly identified with our rational thinking minds and that our efforts to impose control and certainty limit the possibilities of what a moment may hold. As Frank Ostaseski, Zen Caregiving Project Co-founder says, “don’t know mind is one characterized by hope, curiosity, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as it is.”
So in practice, this means that when we enter the rooms of the residents at Laguna Honda Hospital, many of whom are suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses, we leave our ideas and judgments at the door. Being open to what comes when we sit with residents at the bedside means meeting them with an open heart. Letting our rational mind guide us narrows our vision and limits the possibilities of what we will consider. When we meet residents with “don’t know mind,” we can be an open-hearted witness to their experience, whether it is one of joy or suffering.
While I have had this idea of myself being gradually immersed into a practice of mindfulness over the past three years, the last four months have felt more like a dunking; if there has ever been a time to focus on the present and practice “don’t know mind,” this has to be it. I am practicing letting go of judgment and opening my heart to the possibilities that could emerge. It’s become more clear than ever that the present moment demands our attention, and it is a subversion of our creativity and potential to use our precious human energy to regret the past or worry about the future.
So now as my family and I continue to wake every morning with more questions than answers, I draw upon my training and experiences at Laguna Honda Hospital to be more comfortable saying “I don’t know” when I’m asked when soccer practice will start again, when we can visit Grandma and Grandpa and our friends, and when Coronavirus will be under control. I feel moments, even briefly, of lightness and relief when I am able to experience the freedom of opening my heart to the possibilities.
When our volunteer community gathers on Zoom to share how each of us is bringing our practice to bear on the current situation, I feel immense gratitude for the wisdom and compassion of our shared community. And being able to bring the openness of don’t know mind to this present moment of conflict, suffering, and overwhelming loss that we are witnessing is how I remain grounded to find hope as I face what the next moment will bring. I don’t know what it will be, but as I’m continuing to learn, despite all of my planning and our always-full calendar, I never did, as none of us ever do.