Interfaith minister Becker’s Heartwood (Flatiron, May 11.) uses her experiences in hospice work to look deeply into what it means to be mortal.
In the book, you mention a close family member died from Covid-19. Do you have any advice on to honor those in their final moments if you can’t be there physically?
Covid is the perfect test, in a way, of everything I’d been studying with the Zen monks who were teaching me to be with hospice patients. It was really a where-the-rubber-meets-the-road moment. Not just for individuals, but for society. One of the most important lessons I learned in the course of looking at death was to be fully present in the situation as it was—not as we hoped or dreamed it would be. We all have fantasies about the perfect white room with the white curtains, and dying peacefully like that—but sometimes it’s not, and that’s just the hard reality.
Was it hard to write about the more difficult moments in your hospice work?
I knew I wanted to write about what I was experiencing while I was with hospice patients or loved ones as they were dying. But I sort of set a rule for myself as a writer to not be writing in my head. As a writer we have a tendency to do that, to be constantly scanning the room for interesting details. I had to say to myself, “That’s not what this is about, this is about being fully present with this person in this moment.” Something happens when you make this intentional decision to be fully present, which is that afterwards you remember certain things almost as if it’s a perfect camcorder recording.
You write that, in moments where you’ve faced your own mortality, you’ve found “fleeting” peace but know you have more work to do.
It makes sense looking at death that way to me because it’s so unpredictable. We don’t know when or how we will die, if it will be prolonged or happen in an instant. We all have to find the best way for ourselves to deal with the fears and anxieties. For me, that became a connection to meditation and mindfulness during the miscarriages that I had. Looking at the present moment and befriending it—whatever comes. It’s being kind to ourselves. Dropping the judgment of how we’re doing in that moment, and that’s an ongoing practice. I feel like a big message from the book is, can we really take on death awareness? That’s a radical shift in how we live our lives in the West considering how much we push death away. People who are sick or older are often out of sight. We put concrete liners around bodies so worms don’t get at them. We do all kinds of things to avoid the notion that we will die. This is a return to wisdom that accepts death.