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Kirsten DeLeo

Are you dead yet?

Excerpt from “Being a Compassionate Presence – The contemplative approach to end-of-life care” in The Arts of Contemplative Care.

“Are you dead yet?” her high-pitch voice hurled across the room. “Are you dead yet . . . you in the corner?” She glared at me, wide-awake ready to engage. I had been sitting quietly in her room assuming she was asleep. The physician had pointed to the chair in the corner across from her bed before he shut the door behind him with a resounding bang. I had a sinking feeling in my body. I was a fresh hospice volunteer and novice meditator. I followed the direction of his finger and sat down on the chair. I did what was expected, straightened my back and sat in silence.



Amanda, an old lady with tufts of white hair had lived all her life on the streets before she was admitted to hospice. She was ill tempered and moody. They had put her in a single room and whoever entered was quickly dismissed with insults. I was prepared that it was just a matter of time, when I too would be ‘dismissed.’ For now the situation seemed safe. I was wrong. She wasn’t asleep but had watched me with great curiosity from the corner of her eyes.

“Annoying, huh? Having a corpse like me sitting here?” I responded to my surprise, “Yeah!” She growled with a big grin, “Dead people don’t do it for me.”

I had to chuckle. My naïve image of the somber and near-saintly hospice worker was blown away, and I felt the great relief of a burden dropping off my shoulders. Sparring with someone made her feel alive. She was dying, but I was the dead person in the room. “Me neither!” I laughed. Her grin exposed an even bigger smile, along with missing front teeth. She had found a friend.

Extending our compassionate presence to another fellow human being is a simple act. There is nothing special about it. It requires a willingness to be aware, open and loving. This is not always easy. We are required to drop our habitual ways of doing things and any agendas we may have, and instead rely on a compassionate intuition that extends from our practice. We may think that we can do “compassionate presence” by assuming the right outer appearance, as I did when I sat down in Amanda’s room. The truth is, we cannot do “compassionate presence”; we can only be a compassionate presence.


(c) 2012. Reprinted from The Arts of Contemplative Care, edited by Cheryl Giles & Willa Miller with permission from Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 USA. www.wisdompubs.org