Cherishing Life’s Constant Reminders of Love, Acceptance and Connection
For Celeyce Matthews, the journey to working with hospice was over 2 decades in the making. It all began in her early twenties, when something inside her simply gravitated toward being present for people who were dying. She knew herself well enough to know that she didn’t have the strength or capacity to do hospice work just yet, but the seed had been planted.
In her late twenties, she went through what so many of us face: the loss of a grandparent. Her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had hospice care at home in her final days. Through frequent visits over the next few months, Celeyce saw the process of dying firsthand. And on the final day, she saw the ‘ideal death.’
“It was just so moving and beautiful to be there with her,” Celeyce said.“She was in her own bed. All of her family surrounded her. It was so beautiful and it just felt very complete and natural. I was so moved and honored to be there with her and witness that.”
That was Celeyce’s first brush with hospice. After this shared experience, Celeyce’s mother decided to become a hospice social worker, and her father also did some volunteer work with hospice care. Though Celeyce had chosen to work as an art teacher, hospice care was always in the back of her mind.
Years later, triggered by a conversation with a friend at a meditation retreat, she returned home and filled out a volunteer application for the Zen Hospice Project, starting her on a new life path. That path coincided with her life-long practice of cultivating a deep, accepting and compassionate presence with reality through mindfulness and meditation. Today, Celeyce has found that presence and many other rewards during her work with hospice.
“It brings me to a place of absolute presence,” she said. “It strips away for me what feels like ‘surface.’”
Her ability to appreciate life, every single moment, no matter what it might be, has been expanded and enhanced. Even when terrible things happen, she sees a beauty in those things as well – there is not simply one or the other, but everything rolled into one beautiful, moving experience. Hospice care has taught her to really absorb all of it, appreciate everything, and not waste a single drop of life. And, Celeyce also finds comfort in the intense connection with humanity through hospice care.
“Being completely real and stripped down and vulnerable. That intimacy really nourishes me. Really feeds me,” she said.
As one might imagine, her work with hospice has brought her own relationship with life and death to the forefront. By being with patients in hospice, she is learning both how to die and how to live. Seeing all the different ways that people deal with death has made her think about what she might want for her own experience one day.
As she watched individuals suffer and deal with the fear of loss over the years, several stories have nurtured a growth of compassion and empathy within. In the end, intimacy, common humanity and gratitude have all taken center stage. Celeyce has been honored to be a part of numerous experiences, but a few stick with her.
One was a young woman in her thirties who was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. Some of her out-of-state friends came to see her. It was a complete surprise, one that overjoyed the young lady. Her friends had brought along fun things, like a floppy sun hat, heart-shaped sunglasses, big fake mustaches, and so much more. Even though the woman was so drastically ill, they were all acting like kids – and they were all laughing.
Celeyce was honored to participate in those moments.
“I was taking pictures of them. It was such an intimate moment. I didn’t know all of these people and yet we were sharing this beautiful moment that was mixed with sadness and playfulness and goofiness and joy and love.”
There have been quiet times, too. She once sat with a woman who fought through a great deal of nausea with a joyful attitude and appreciation for the life she still had. They sat in chairs together, side-by-side, simply watching a sunset. Even though the woman was suffering, she seemed to have total peace and acceptance of her death. Simply sitting there beside her had a profound impact on Celeyce.
“It was such an amazing opportunity to be with all of that without pushing any of it away,” Celeyce said.
The Zen Hospice Project is also known for embracing moments of profound meaning, incorporating rituals and teachings that can take on great significance for families and the caregivers themselves. Celeyce finds that these often bring a sense of peace and closure to those who are saying goodbye. One of these is the bathing ritual. After cleaning the body, a special tea is brewed, and cloths are dipped into the tea. The cloths are then wiped over the hands, face, feet, and forehead – anywhere that seems appropriate. This cleansing can be accompanied by words for the person who has just left this life, or it can be entirely silent, a reverent moment of togetherness. A small bell is rung when the ritual is complete.
Another helpful ritual involves flower petals. The flower petal ceremony is an important way to make even the most clinical parts of death more beautiful. Once a person has died, the mortuary comes to collect the body. Though they are placed on a gurney and surrounded by a bag, the face and head are left open and exposed. On the way to the hearse, everyone pauses in the beautiful garden, and bowls of flower petals are offered to the family, friends, caregivers, and anyone else who wants to say their goodbyes. One by one, they step forward and scatter the petals over the person’s body. Sometimes it is done in silence, sometimes with words, but either way, the sprinkling of the flowers creates a beautiful send-off. A bell is rung and the mortuary takes the body away, but that brief moment lingers – it is a beautiful way to honor and say goodbye to someone.
Celeyce began her journey in hospice as a volunteer. Today she is on the nursing staff at the Zen Hospice Project. No matter her role in helping individuals with their transition out of this world, the deep appreciation for the full range of life remains.
“I feel gratitude for everything in my life now,” she said. “A deep sense of gratitude for the entire process of life, for everything that happens.”
Celeyce Matthews is a certified hospice nurse assistant, and former volunteer caregiver with Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, California. She also facilitates some of the Zen Hospice Project’s Mindful Caregiver education programs, and writes and publishes stories of her experiences in hospice work at Stories of Care Giving
- Know that life is full love, suffering, beauty and difficult- all of which can nurture a gratitude for living
- There are always gifts awaiting if we embrace the opportunities that come our way