Discovering New Ways of Finding Meaning
This course is a part of Harley’s Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education, and so it is no surprise that there is a strong emphasis on mindfulness practices within this course. Mindfulness is the practice of entering a mental state of awareness of the present moment, being conscious of one self, and acknowledging all of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations one is currently experiencing. It is often used as a therapeutic technique. Students perform many mindfulness activities such as reflective journaling and participating in group discussions about the impact and meaning behind their work. Even beyond the classroom setting, students offer great insights about how their experiences have altered their perspective on life.
Ritual and Meditative Practice
By lighting a candle at the beginning of class and blowing it out at the end, we acknowledge our proximity to death and invite death to our table. This also serves as a practice in being purposefully aware of what’s happening in the moment, without judging yourself and others. Drawing heavily from the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, this course provides you with the opportunity to develop practical tools for self-care while actively participating in highly sensitive situations during your service work.
From the first day of class until the end of the school year (and hopefully into the future), students will keep a hospice journal to document their experiences and maintain a log of their hospice shifts. This is an essential process for connecting experiences in the field back to the classroom and the course content.
At the end of the year, each student in the hospice course receives a stone on which they write a single word to encompass the experiences they’ve had over the course of the class. It is a way for the students to encapsulate all the insights they’ve gained, the memories they’ve shared, the triumphs and trials they’ve endured.
Photo by Amelia Hamilton
Photo by Amelia Hamilton
As residents that students have cared for pass, students are encouraged to select an aquarium stone which reminds them of the resident, and share their favorite memory of them. This allows the students to show respect for and thank the resident for the times they’ve had together. It is a process which emboldens gratitude and inspires further reflection of the impact the resident has had on them.
In Their Own Words
Remembering to live in the moment and appreciate what’s around you.
Ever since she passed away I just realized I’m changing every day…I’m so much more positive now.
Yesterday I didn’t have a shift but I drove out just to say hi to her and see how her week was going.
When someone comes to you, a resident, a friend, anyone, and they want to talk to you about whatever’s on their mind, and you know, whatever’s on my mind, that’s second, and I need to find a way to, as they say, put it in my lap…that’s something that I’ll take in forever.
One activity in the Hospice curriculum is called Holding Space, and it is a mindfulness and empathy exercise in which students learn how to appropriately respond to the suffering of others. The ability to be mindful of one’s own position relative to another, and truly empathize with their experience is not only a very useful skill to have when providing hospice and palliative care, but additionally can be useful throughout the duration of one’s life, in interacting with friends, family and loved ones. Many students have expressed that this lesson has been one of the most impactful and useful lessons they have learned throughout the course. There is no exact textbook procedure for holding space, but rather is a practice which must be adjusted on an individual basis. This in itself also lends to further reflection on the students behalf, in figuring out the best way for them to listen to and support others.
Quietly sitting beside me
you steadily breathe
inhale after exhale
no sharp intakes of judgment
or wistful releases of pity,
Your heart openly reaches for mine
to whatever spills
out of my mouth,
my own experience.
I am free yet lovingly confined
by your presence
to be mad, sad, upset,
disappointed, happy, ecstatic, angry,
light, dark, sparkly
you offer me this
holding my space.
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