Holy Dying

from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine.

with Edwin Sasek

art of the ABODE home by E. Gordon West

Edwin Sasek is the founder and president of the board of Abode Contemplative Care for the Dying, an interfaith nonprofit organization that provides care for those at the end of life in a contemplative setting. The ABODE Home, located in northeast San Antonio, can house three guests at a time who are receiving medical care from a hospice agency but don’t have adequate housing or caregiving. Marjorie George, editor of Reflections, talked with Edwin about the concept of contemplative care at ABODE.

MG –ABODE is different from most institutional care. What makes this so?
ES – ABODE is an extension of the hospice concept of dying at home surrounded by people who love you, with familiar things, plants, animals, sights, smells — rather than in a hospital or nursing home. For the staff and volunteers at the ABODE home, the focus becomes “How can I be with you in your dying? How can I relieve some of that suffering? Can I bathe you, and feed you, comfort you, and be with you” — which are very human, compassionate acts. “Whenever you did it for my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me,” said Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (25:40). How can we be with the dying person in his suffering — and not run away?

MG – Much of the care given at ABODE is by volunteers. Are they trained in contemplative care?
ES – For our volunteers, their professional skills and backgrounds are not as important as their willingness to sit at the bedside of someone who is dying and to be vulnerable. ABODE’s staff and volunteers help our guests make ABODE a home through the excellent training and the guidance of ABODE’s executive director, Jane Marie Young.

The hospice nurses and staff make regular visits, just as would be the case in anyone’s home. The guests and their loved ones have many opportunities for silence, for just being, and for talking about what is important to them. Staff and volunteers are always encouraged to be reflective about their work and relationships at ABODE.

Sometimes the work is hard, and support for staff and volunteers is necessary to care for others and for us. So there is ongoing training, learning and being in a contemplative setting. An interfaith meditation group meets every Monday evening at the home which is open to anyone.

MG – The concept of hospice care was developed in the United States in the 1970s. But it has a long history. How does your own history fit into that?
ES – A book we studied at the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Hospice Institute in New Mexico while I was beginning a degree in Hospice and Grief Counseling discussed hospice care in the Middle Ages — a pilgrim making a journey could become sick along the way, and monasteries and convents would provide shelter and care. A seriously ill person may reach the end stages of life, so monks and sisters would give the dying person the best of everything they had — the best bedding, the best food and care.

The perception was that this person would shortly be with God, the veil was thin. God was present in a special way, preparing and transforming: “As the body grows weaker, the Spirit grows stronger,” as Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians (12:10). So the idea of forming a spiritual community to care for dying people was planted in me.

Over the years since the mid-90s, working full-time as a hospice chaplain brought me into the lives of many who didn’t have a family member or a neighbor to help care for him; or family members had to work, or for any number of reasons the person was unable to live in her own home.

Many people at the end of life are forced to give up their homes, their dignity, their ability to make their own decisions, Nursing homes are not always a good option. And, dying is certainly a spiritual process, not a medical event. So for many years I thought I’d like to gather a community that would take care of the dying, but I could never quite figure out the logistics.

MG – Did that idea stay with you?
ES – Yes, so around 2009, I gathered a group of about 20 people together whom I knew had a heart for what I was referring to as “contemplative hospice.” We were hospice doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers and ministers, business people, artists and healers. My question was: “Is there such a thing as ‘contemplative hospice?’ Is it a type of care or a place?” Because I felt strongly that spiritual care is central to the care of the dying, I didn’t know if we would create a place, or a concept, or an organization.

We put the idea on the back burner and waited. Our group met regularly to study a book by Roshi Joan Hallifax called Being With Dying. Then a year or so later my friend and colleague John McKelvey told me about the Toni and Trish House in Auburn, Michigan, which he opened in 2008, after working at Mother Theresa House in Lansing for a year. I knew immediately that was the model I wanted to follow. I reconvened the group in June of 2010, and we formed ABODE

MG – When did ABODE open?
ES – We welcomed our first guest in December 2014 after buying a beautiful property and designing and building a new home, which happened through the compassion and generosity of so many individuals and organizations. We opened without a mortgage.

Unfortunately, in early June, we encountered a massive plumbing issue that resulted in the house flooding, and we had to vacate the house and have been under repair since then. Fortunately, insurance will cover almost all of the cost of repair. We expect to be fully operational again within the next month or so. All of the funding we collected through donations from individuals to cover repair will now be used for operating expenses.

MG – There is no cost for the dying person to live at ABODE. How do you fund the care?
ES – Through grants, memorials, corporate contributions, and donations. We have limited staff and rely on the help of our amazing volunteers. Our operating budget is $270,000 a year.

MG – Final thoughts?
ES – The experience of establishing ABODE has taught me two things: we have to develop a contemplative spiritually to live fully, and it takes a long time to do that — it is practice that matters. When I was much younger I wanted the “burning bush” type of spirituality — big experience and then that’s that. But it does not work that way. I am reminded of what the Buddhists say: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

To read more articles from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine, or to read the entire issue, go to this page.

For your spiritual journey from The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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