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the tricky nature of ‘helping’

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A neighbour told me about an acquaintance who lives “a pretty independent life”; doesn’t want to bother anyone, nor be bothered by others; has moved around a fair bit, and now, at age 77, lives alone in a trailer park. On occasion, he’s told her that should he become “old and feeble” he’d not want to go on, not have a stranger “wipe my bum. … I’d sooner hook up the exhaust pipe and put an end to it.” A couple of weeks ago he was diagnosed with brain cancer and my neighbour asks how to be of service to an old friend.

As she spoke of their long-standing friendship and recent diagnosis, I found myself wanting to give advice, noticed a quiet satisfaction of being sought out for my expertise. Holding back, I concentrated on listening instead: on sharing some of my experience of being with dying persons at hospice, on following her lead in exploring her (and his) options. We tossed ideas around about cancer treatment, pain, suffering, assisted suicide, internet sources, and on and on. The one question I didn’t ask her was this: How can I be of service to you?

Yet, that’s the very first thing I suggested she ask with her sick friend. [I’m still learning.]

Perhaps [it] is a selfish motivation for caregiving. The ego is part of everything we do. It can’t be eliminated, but it can be brought into balance with awareness. We are mindful of the ‘me’ in our caregiving so it doesn’t overwhelm our work. … What are our needs? If we are going to meet the needs of others, we must be mindful of our own.

source: Collett, M. (1999). At home with dying: a Zen hospice approach. Boston: Shambala, p. 76. photo: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of cancer (orange area) that has spread from the lungs to the brain; Zephyr/Science Photo Library.


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