Tag: community

Tool of my trade #1 – compassionate listening

I wrote this last year sitting in Adelaide airport just after I’d attended the Spiritual Care Australia conference. The next conference is in Tasmania and I’m sad that I’m missing it, but I have a full calendar to tend to. This post concerns the value of compassionate listening and how we can serve the dying – and the living – better by really being able to hear what people are saying.

After three days of extending my practice as a spiritual carer at the Spiritual Care Australia conference in Adelaide, my vocation really is all about LISTENING. Not listening in a one-dimensional or perfunctory way, but really listening. I like to call it active or compassionate listening.

Tenzin Chodron from Karuna Hospice gave a rousing speech yesterday. The energy in the room was palpable after she lead us through a gentle meditation, and continued to enthral delegates when she spoke about her Buddhist model of spiritual care and about some of her intimate experiences with the dying. I’ve been  lucky enough to have studied under Chodron through Karuna as part of my ‘Spiritual Care with the Dying’ training, and compassionate listening is a skill I honed during my training. During both courses, the group did a listening exercise. We were partnered off where we had to actively listen for ten minutes to our partner without saying a word. No interruptions, no ‘me too’. We then swapped places so that the other person could speak.

It’s amazing how much you can really hear when you’re fully engaged with another person. Once the exercise was over, we discussed the listening activity and how it facilitated true listening, because when we think we’re listening to the person in front of us, are we ever fully engaged with that person and what they are saying? I would have to say that no, we’re not. But we can be.

From then on, whenever I have had to speak with someone as a fully engaged listener, I do a small meditation before I literally step or place myself into the conversation. This is also how I prepare when I’m about to speak with people who are sick or dying, which translates to me that there needs to be a quality of presence.

Clear the mind, set your intention and be almost hyper-attuned. I truly believe that by not listening properly we are failing the sick and dying.

It never ceases to surprise me what comes up for people who are dying. But as with speaking, there needs to be a greater respect for silence. Ofttimes, that is all the person can do until they know what they do want to speak about, or if they want to speak at all.

There are many ways in which we fail the dying. While palliative care nurses, spiritual carers, doctors and other practitioners recognise that suffering affects a person’s spirit, it is common for doctors who are not specialised in palliative care to treat people as just ‘a body in a bed.’ I’ve experienced this first hand, particular when I transitioned to an adult hospital. Everyone – patient or not – is more than the sum of their parts.

In Canberra, there is a much more holistic approach in palliative care medicine. Existential and spiritual suffering often manifests as physical pain, and I have heard stories that once this pain has been addressed, the need for morphine and other pain relief is lessened – particularly at night. This resonates with me because I’ve been to that place and I know that night time is both figuratively and literally the darkest of times where every layer of pain and suffering surfaces and is amplified tenfold. I’d be interested to know if you have had any ‘dark nights of the soul’.

As a spiritual carer, this interests me greatly. What’s more, it offers irrefutable proof that in order to fully understand other peoples pain and suffering, we must first recognise what kind of pain a person is in – emotionally, existentially, physically and spiritually. While pain relieving drugs are almost always necessary in palliative care, there’s evidence to suggest that the use of morphine and its ilk can mask spiritual pain. I have heard stories of many people who are dying who have refused pain relief so they could just BE. They wanted to experience dying in its infinite form and to be present. That takes momentous courage which the dying seem to have in spades.

The day before I flew to Adelaide for the conference, I was lucky enough to do a Death Midwifery workshop with Dr. Michael Barbato. During the workshop, Michael discussed these issues as well as quality of care, the evolution of spiritual care, and midwifeing the self, which is something I will address as another tool of my trade in another post. One of the last things Michael shared with us was a mantra for the living and the dying which I will leave you with as I sit at my desk on this early evening.

I forgive you.

I forgive me.

Bless you.

Thank you.

I love you.

Death Cafe Brisbane – this Saturday!

I know it’s short notice, but I only bit the bullet on the weekend about curating a Death Cafe this Saturday 20th December. I’d love it if you could join us at The Three Monkeys café for coffee/chai/milkshakes and cake/nachos/pizza in West End from 2-4pm.

I want to let you know that I’ve had a couple of enquiries about whether a death café is a good idea for people who are experiencing a very recent bereavement. My short answer would be no. Some conversations may be triggers for very raw emotions, and while we’re a supportive bunch, we are not equipped with a psychologist or a grief counsellor. What the Queensland Death Care Collective can do is refer you to qualified practitioners so you can find the right counselling service for you. When you’re not feeling so raw, perhaps you can come along to the next death café, which I’m planning for February. We would love to have you join us 🙂

Learning to Die: my TEDx talk

Yesterday my TEDx talk went live on TEDx Brisbane’s YouTube channel, and I’ve had an almost overwhelming response about speaking about my life (and deaths), and my beliefs and truths about dying and death. Here it is – Learning to Die.

I’ve been bathing in the beautiful waters of Death Walking training over the last two days, the last of which is today. Being able to come together with other ‘deathies’ has been such a gift and so serendipitous in its timing. When I looked at my phone at morning tea, I couldn’t understand why I had a flurry of messages, though it soon registered when friends and strangers alike were reaching out to me. And so here it is, ready for people to do with it as they wish.

So make yourself a cuppa or an espresso or whatever your poison is and sit down to hear what I have to say. And please – let me know what you think. Comment, share, repost. I’m feeling happy and grateful that my words can be heard should you so desire to listen because if just one person walks away – or leaves their desk or kitchen table – a little more fluent in the language of death, then my work here is done. Peace.

The turning of tides

I can feel the ground beneath my feet opening up to greet me; as though it is ready for me to step in and entangle me with its roots.

I am a very different woman than who I was the last time I was out here in central Queensland. Five years ago I was broken from a damaging relationship. After my spirit been chipped away, there was only one place I could think of that could even remotely begin to heal me, and that was my dear friend Meagan’s parents cattle station out in central Queensland. I needed to get out of the city and out of my head, because there’s only so much introspection you can do. And I didn’t want to talk. To anyone. My problem, my issue, my silence, my choice.

So this is what I did next – I hopped on a train and made my way out west. I was still mired in shock that the cancer surgery I’d had the previous November had come so close to claiming my life, I was afraid of life and death, and I was writing a book about the death of a child in a car crash. Reading coroners reports and interviewing first responders as well as the family of the child wasn’t conducive to healing, but I needed something to keep my head above the waterline that kept lapping at my throat until it reached my nostrils. I managed to keep the water from lapping at my neck.

I needed to heal from the outside in.

This year has been one of great change, both personally and professionally. I’ve ended friendships that no longer served me and focused on my ‘real’ friendships. I took an indefinite hiatus from social media – namely Facebook, and by doing that, it came to light who my true friends are. I surmised that if someone wants to be in my life, they’ll make the effort, just as I make the effort to be in theirs.

Life deviates. Our sails adjust. We change course.

Had someone told me last year that I’d be studying human services, I would have questioned their state of mind, but in order to pursue my dream of studying palliative care at Flinders University in Adelaide, I’m preparing by studying a graduate certificate in human services – effectively ensconced in the field of community services, specifically health.

Life deviates. Our sails adjust. We change course.

You think you have your life in order. I thought I had my career as a writer carved into the skin of an elephant, but everything changed when I discovered Karuna – a hospice for the dying. I knew I’d found my purpose. It’s a slow process, and over the past few of years, I’ve completed levels one and two of ‘Spiritual Care with the Dying’ through Karuna and next  there’s an intensive family volunteer program I want to do so I can finally start working with the dying and their families. I liken it to being a death midwife. It’s just as important to die a good death as it is to live a good life.

Karuna was a life-altering experience. As I walked into the grounds, I came home. I had found my place in the world and my passion – palliative care. I walked into Karuna’s beautiful homestead a very frightened woman. Ever since I’d missed death by a hairs breadth in 2007, I had never been more afraid of death and dying. But I left Karuna feeling liberated, empowered and fearless.

The plan? I don’t know yet. My passion for palliative care has of late, taken a sharp turn into the welfare of Indigenous people and the gaping chasm of palliative care in rural areas, but again …

Life deviates. Our sails adjust. We change course.

In February, I did a Vipassana – a ten-day silent meditation ‘retreat’. It was one of the most trying things I’ve ever done spiritually, but I left Dhamma Rasmi liberated from my past and far more mindful of the present. I walked out of there a free woman.

I acknowledge that I am at the beginning of this journey. I acknowledge that I am a novice when it comes to medical palliative care. I’ve been accumulating and reading an ever-growing stack of material about the massive chasm in Indigenous palliative care, and I’m well aware that I’m very much at the beginning of what I know will be a life changing journey.

You calculate the risks in your head and your heart, and this makes you a passion hunter. FIND your deeper purpose. Deviate your life, adjust your sails and change course. Close the door on things and people who don’t serve or support your passions, hopes and desires, but be mindful to practice kindness and compassion. If I had to choose a religion, I would choose kindness and compassion. Kindness is my religion. I’m blessed to know where my passions lie and how to go about chasing them and bringing them to the forefront of my life.

My relationship with my family – especially my sister – has evolved to a level where we are closer than ever. My sister and I support both our individual and shared passions; encouraging each other to jump, or in her case – sprint – out of our comfort zones and just go for it. I couldn’t be more proud of her and what she has achieved throughout this year. She’s deviated her life, adjusted her sails and changed course. We both have.

I’m now in a place where my writing plays a far different role in my life. I will always write. Words are like cordite in my blood. That nitroglycerin and cellulose-nitrate never stops steaming; it’s just that novels don’t seem to be as important as my studies and the direction they’re taking me.

Deviate your life. Adjust your sails. Change course. Dig your feet in. Be fearless and claim your passion.

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The dream starts here

I have a passion for life and death, and death and dying – specifically, palliative care, oft times referred to as ‘end of life’ care. For many years I’ve wanted to be a palliative care worker, and in 2010 I began my ‘Karuna Journey’. As I walked through the doors of Karuna, I could feel myself smiling. I felt like I was home, and that this is what I wanted to do with my life – to look after the dying, or as we say in palliative care, to help people ‘die a good death.’ After all, it is life’s only other true certainty (taxes are not). Through Karuna I studied two levels of ‘Spiritual Care with the Dying’ with Tenzin Chodron, an earth angel and Tibetan Buddhist nun who works at Karuna, giving clients and their families the spiritual support they both seek and often crave as they come to the end of their lives.

The last two weeks have been a cyclone of questions and answers. I’ve been in contact with the lovely people from the Flinders University post-graduate Palliative Care program, because I wanted to do the Graduate Certificate in Palliative Care they offer. The only problem is that I lack the appropriate health degree (I’m sure as hell *never* doing nursing, and I bow down to all nurses) and practice lead experience, so with their guidance, kindness and a couple of suggestions, I’ve enrolled to do a Graduate Certificate in Human Services through Griffith University which will essentially be my segue into the course I so desperately want to do through Flinders.

By the skin of my teeth, thanks to an agile email eye and persistence, I begin studying next week gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh which means that I’m going to be a student again. This excites and terrifies me in equal measures. The course is part-time and will take me a year to complete, and in March there is a volunteer intensive training course run by Karuna. I applied to do this intensive this year, but for some strange reason – and I’ll put this down to the universe working in fucked up mysterious ways for the greater good – my application went M.I.A.  I had been waiting ever so patiently (nearly ten years – I still have the original bright yellow brochure from Karuna), and of all the things to have happen, knowing I’d slipped through the cracks left me feeling crushed and unsure about my future. It was something I had wanted to do for so long, and I thought ‘Yes. This is it. I’m actually doing this!’, but it was not to be.

I can deal with 99% of ‘difficult’ situations by dusting myself off and pulling my boots back on, but this had me howling for a good couple of days. Worse than any heartbreak, I would have to wait another year – a year I may not have due to the nature of my dis-ease. I didn’t have time to wait, and coupled with the fact that I had a suspected heart issue and a raging chest infection, I was one very sad girl. But still, I polished my boots, pulled them back on, and had ultimate faith that the universe would provide – I just had to be open to it.

And so here I am on the eve of becoming a student again. The dreaming stops and the real and tangible begins.There’s the faint taste of ink and paper on my tongue.

Tonight I tilt my head towards the sky; the moon slung high in its splendour. My tea bursts with vanilla as it wakes my tired mouth and warms my belly; City and Colour is on an endless loop, and I’m happily walled in by anthills of books: Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Patti Smith – my journey women who so boldly cut a swathe through what they recognised as the binds of their lives with the ultimate enterprise and courage in a world so fuelled – and consequentially flawed – by fear. In its place there was blind faith, impudence, fabulous spelling and grammar and an absence of fear.

Life makes me happy, as does death. Both as ambrosial as the other.

Below: YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!

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Peace, love and firearms

I often say I’m like the son my father never had.  I love cars, and Dad has some beauties. I love driving my Jeep, and can’t imagine driving an automatic car. I love speed – cars, boats, planes. And another thing … I. Love. Firearms. Always have and after today, I undoubtedly always will.

Until today, the only gun I’d ever shot was a .22 in a string bikini (those photos are in a vault), when I shot a roo out on my friends cattle station in Barcaldine. I remember being in the pool with Jayde and Katrina when the call was put out that we had roos inside the fence, so I pulled on my boots and grabbed the .22 next to the stereo which was playing Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’. To make a long story short, I managed to get the roo on my second shot from around one hundred feet. I walked out into the paddock to ensure it was dead. There are humane ways to kill pests on the land – don’t get me started on shooting kangaroos because I will win the argument – and that’s what I did.

When I took my Dad out to a shooting range to gun school for his birthday I was really out of practice (so was he). Dad or Rosco as we call him, has amazing stories about living in the outback back in the day and some of them involve firearms. I’ve injected a few of his stories into my novel set in 1973 outback Queensland because it’s always good to go to the source, like when I go to see my mate Gordon Greber.

This morning was sub-arctic. Even Rosco was feeling the chill, and he’s tough as nails. We were in a group of nine and we started on pistols (two different calibres – the second obviously more powerful than the first). We both thought we’d fall in love with the pistols, but more gun-a-licious fun was to come.

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^^ Friendly fire! I call this ‘you have awesome donor lungs and my friend needs a transplant – FREEZE!’

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^^ Dirty Rosco.

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^^ Smiling assassin … and yep – he’s still a crack shot.

We then moved onto the semi-automatics. We loaded the magazines ourselves, and away we went, moving to a higher calibre after ten shots. I was jubilant I’d brought my Mullum market gloves because it really was *that* cold.

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^^ Don’t fuck with me.

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(I’m loving Rosco’s growing his hair. Why? Because he can. It’s very Wyatt Earp. All he needs now is some pomade).

It was the shotgun I had the most fun with when we were shooting at clay targets – one of which I actually smashed. I jumped on my teacher, Lloyd and then the other whose name I can’t remember and he picked me up and twirled me around.

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We had five rounds of these ^^ There was just enough recoil through the shoulder and jaw to get the adrenaline swirling. The photo below shows Lloyd, myself and another instructor. Tough as nails blokes who I’d love to interview for my novel.

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We then moved on for the final activity – black powder pistol and rifle shooting. We had a tutorial where we listened to some incredible stories about the American Civil War and the firearms we were about to use. It’s a tortuously sad period of history, but incredible all the same. The outlaw Josey Wales carried seven of these on his body – one under his arm, two strapped to each ankle, two holstered to his side, one in the back of his trousers and one under his hat as he fired. On a horse. Now that’s multitasking.

We were shown how the powder is poured into five out of the six chambers, and then sealed with a paste made of olive oil and beeswax. It’s a gentle process and an exercise in patience. These men are passionate about history and were more than happy to lend their ear for a chat about the firearms we were shooting with. I fired an exceptionally powerful revolver – the sound and power shuddered through my chest and into to my spine, then down through my pelvis. For some reason it had a calming effect on me. Then I had five shots with a smaller calibre revolver, and as I discovered with the pistol shooting, wearing spectacles can be tricky to navigate. That’s my excuse for no bullseye.

Our team leader, Debbie was an impressive lady and so lovely. She’s a crack shot with pistols – that’s her weapon of choice. All the volunteers at the range were so hospitable and kind – they couldn’t do enough for you. When I was shooting the clay targets, I told Lloyd that I shake because of the anti-rejection medication I’m on (a lot of people think I’m nervous), so he gave me a couple of tips – about breathing, ironically – and I was set. Love your work, Lloyd.

If I was to describe in one word what it’s like when you’re handed a firearm of any kind, I would say ‘responsible.’ Guns kill people and people kill people – it’s a fact of life – and I’m grateful that the Howard government initiated the ‘buy back’ scheme after the Port Arthur massacre. It’s their greatest legacy by far.

Yes, holding and shooting firearms made me feel empowered and in control (and a little bit badass) but you need to treat these weapons with the utmost respect. Yes, I want to get my gun licence – I have for many years. There are a couple of properties I go to where guns are used and I’d like to be a licensed and proficient shot. It’s a long process as it should be, although it’s rarely registered gun owners who carry out acts of violence.

Shooting as a sport never made sense to me, but after today it does. It takes immense strength to hold a firearm steady for extended periods of time.

If shooting was a sport at the Transplant Games, I’d be gold medalling the fuck out of life.

Dad loved the .22 pistol and the .308 calibre of the semi-automatic. But being a Clint Eastwood aficionado, his heart lies with the black powder revolvers of the Wild West. For me, it was the twelve gauge shottie with the clay targets and the .308 calibre of the semi-automatic. Or maybe I developed grandfatherly emotions for Lloyd. Rosco and I had a beautiful day of bullets, mateship, high-fives and vast blue skies.

Far from being pacifists, both Dad and I are both lovers, not fighters, so I implore you to not confuse people who have a penchant for firearms as being pre-disposed to hatred or violence. It’s like putting me into a box where, because I love cars, I’m a dickhead on the road (I’m not).

So while I connect with certain ‘blokey’ stuff, I meditate, drink gallons of tea, make a mean chai, and enjoy gentler pursuits like crocheting, tending my little rooftop garden, playing my harp, swimming and reading. Most of all, I’m kind, compassionate, and have an endless supply of love to give.

Below is my favourite photo from today. Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you ♥

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There’s gunpowder under my fingernails, I can still taste the cordite on my tongue, and there’s SO much love in my heart ♥

Beginning again

To end, we must always begin.

Last night I watched a house burn. I’d never seen a house on fire before, and though it was a building emptied long ago of furniture and people and other things you find in a house, a gentle sadness carried itself on the black smoke as we watched the house being eaten away by flames.

There was worry. The fire, however it had started, was being fanned by perfect conditions in yesterdays heat and bluster. We feared it would jump to the houses next door – tinderboxes framed and held together by old, dry timber, but the four fire crews kept it contained and this morning, the house still stands like the Auguste-um in Rome – the place Octavian Augustus had built to house his remains – burned, pillaged and now a home for gypsies, today it stood in the street like a stubborn child.

A house fire is a highly sensory experience – taste, smell, sight, sound. The only omission – touch.

My friend and I had finished dinner on my balcony when my nose picked up the smell of burning plastic. I walked over to my Christmas tree to make sure it hadn’t started smouldering, then walked back outside to where my friend gasped, ‘oh my god,’ and raced to the other end of the balcony. This house we walk past so often was well alight. The most distressing element of the ‘experience’ was the sound. There is a cavernous silence, then the ‘pop pop pop’ of windows and the sense of curiosity about what else might be exploding and imploding. It is always what we cannot see that rakes our bones.

This building had once been a ‘seven pack’. Seven rooms and four enclosed garages – three of which the firies had ripped perfect triangles into, providing a ripe passage for the heat to escape.

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I couldn’t put my finger on why so many questions remained about this one house fire. Perhaps it was because it was like watching another death. I have borne witness to many of those where the soul seems to be driven out after the last breath has been taken and expirated, but like Tibetan culture, I’ve always believed the soul stays for a little while as  overseer, observer and protector of those who have been left behind.

The soul of the place was stripped by flames and drowned with water, leaving a husk of something once great to mourn over. The next morning as we trundled past, I thought that perhaps being ruined can be beautiful because you get to begin again and that if you look closely enough for it, there’s beauty in breakdown.

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