Pioneering educator and researcher Dr. John Eric Baugher was just eighteen years old when his mother was murdered. Filled with rage, John felt he was fated to join his mother’s killer in life imprisonment. Not behind bars, but behind psychological walls of unresolved grief and anger. How he channeled his grief and discovered compassion and even humor in the face of death is at the heart of John’s new book, “Contemplative Caregiving: Finding Healing, Compassion and Spiritual Growth Through End of Life Care.” Jana talks with John about how “Contemplative Caregiving” evolved from his early years as a hospice caregiver in New Orleans, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, to working with hospice volunteers at a maximum-security prison and interviewing dozens of hospice volunteers in the US and abroad. Without sugarcoating the experience, John also describes meeting his mother’s killer, who is still behind bars. “Contemplative Caregiving” affirms John’s belief that we can transform experiences of loss and suffering into a path of compassion, and that even amid the challenges of caregiving we can find joy in unlikely places.
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JANA – In his new book, Dr. John Eric Baugher points out that about half a million hospice caregivers volunteer each year in the United States alone, and that the growing number and diversity of people drawn to end of life care tells us something profound about the human spirit and about the possibilities for the current era. Death and grief are subjects Dr. Baugher is well familiar with. In 1987, his mother was murdered and he felt he was fated to join her killer in life imprisonment – not behind bars, but behind psychological walls of unresolved grief and anger. How he channeled his grief and discovered compassion and even humor in the face of death is at the heart of Dr. Baugher’s new book titled, “Contemplative Caregiving: Finding Healing, Compassion and Spiritual Growth Through End of Life Care.”
JANA – John Eric Baugher has been a contemplative educator, social science researcher and end of life caregiver for more than two decades. His work has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He’s published widely, provided training and workshops both in the US and abroad, and he joins us today to talk about his book, “Contemplative Caregiving.” Dr. John Eric Baugher, I am so excited and pleased to have you on The Agewyz Podcast. Welcome.
JOHN – Thank you. So happy to be here today.
JANA – The work that you do was, as I mentioned in the opening, born out of tragedy, and one of the things – the many things I like about this book is that you really don’t pull any punches as far as describing the event. You were just 18 years old. I wonder if you could take us through what happened?
JOHN – Yeah, sure. I’ll just begin by saying, you know, in my research and in my travels in life, my general understanding is that suffering can really be the doorway for waking up, or at least the invitation to want to wake up. And so in that sense, you know, I begin the book by saying, you know, I wouldn’t have written this book if my mother hadn’t been murdered. And I understand that, you know, that line could lead people to, you know, be drawn to the book and lead some people to put it down. And so in telling this tragedy of loss of my mother, you know, each of our losses are very precious. Each of our lives are quite unique. And so really, what I don’t want to do is to grandstand. Each of us has suffered in our lives. I just want to offer that at the outset.
JOHN – So I was just two months shy of 19 when my mother was killed, and this was a man who was on drugs and somehow entered the house where she was taking care of babysitting some children, and sort of the details of that are – like it’s horrific. Any murder is horrific. And you know, I entered the courtroom and heard the prosecutor describe in detail how my mother’s life ended. And as a – at that point, a 19-year-old you know, I had a murderous rage in me. There’s no getting around that, that this dear woman who brought me into this world and gave me so much.
JOHN – And so what became clear early on, though, and this was part of witnessing my own family, and really deeply investigating my grief, I would say that it’s not that I woke up, but I would say that what happened to me is, I could see that I was sleepwalking. That’s how I would describe it. That it really put in me a struggle to really understand what I was doing on this planet, what we humans do to each other, and what the possibilities are for how we might live.
JOHN – And so for me, I discerned fairly quickly that you know, as the state was going for the death penalty – he ultimately received life in prison without parole – that I came to the point of the sentencing, I can’t say where it came from, but some understanding that the healing of my own grief really wasn’t about whether the state took this man’s life. That’s him. That’s really not my mother. The grief is a broken bond with my mother. And so I had some understanding, or intuition, that I really needed to turn inward and find a way to turn outward to make sense of this loss. And so I just remember a particularly brother being really, really broken up when he didn’t receive the death penalty.
JANA – Your brother, did you say?
JOHN – Yeah, an older brother of mine. And having been in that place with him of having fantasized about what we would like to do to him. And so I just remember that feeling very early on of, not knowing what it was, but having some spark with saying, there’s something that’s really about my connection to my mother, that’s really about my connection to myself, about my own life force. And so I say all that – and also, this man is in prison behind bars, there was some kind of justice here. And so I’m saying that with acknowledgement for those who have lost families to murder and their perpetrators are still on the street, possibly harming others. It’s acknowledging that that context matters as well.
JOHN – So, you know, I found myself, I was in my third semester in college at the time, and, you know, I turned to sociology courses, psychology courses, which were really places for me to explore these sorts of existential questions. And I took a course on death and dying, a sociology course taught by a social worker on death and dying. That’s where I first heard the word hospice. And it wasn’t like, Oh, that’s for me. But I’m sure that some seed was being planted here. But also more so it was in these courses. These courses really encouraged me to look inward, and to investigate my own grief and my own rage and my own fear of that rage, things like this.
JOHN – And so I moved to New Orleans in 1992, to start graduate school down there at Tulane University. And I think I saw a billboard sign that – on giving blood, and I went and gave blood for the first time in my life. And I think that somehow reminded me of some seed that I wanted to water. And it wasn’t long after that, that I called up hospice. So I think that’s how I put it together. That there was both this horrific suffering in my own life, some time period of working with that, and making sense of that. And then some opportunity presented. Something like that. So there’s some mystery in all of that.
JOHN – But I would say, also, and this is something that I discovered through the work of caregiving, and through the research of interviewing, you know, more than 75 people for this book, I didn’t know this at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put words to this, yet the draw to end of life care, to hospice caregiving, was in some way to use the language of someone I interviewed, to somehow make right this grief in my life. Not in a sense that this tragedy could be made, right. But more in a spiritual sense, that for me, I wasn’t able to be there – to protect my mother, to care for her and this sort of thing. And rather than being trapped in this sort of “what if,” you know, trauma reaction, I found a way to channel that love for her, my desire to be there for her, into being there for others, where the context was that I actually could show up. I actually could be present, where my good intentions could find – the seeds of good intention could find fertile soil and water to flourish.
JANA – So what did you know about hospice volunteering, before you started doing it? And if you could maybe reflect on being interviewed by a hospice social worker, when you started. I know you didn’t have any training. She asked you about your motivation for volunteering. And so I wondered if you could maybe reflect on what you knew about hospice volunteering before this, and that first interview.
JOHN – Yeah. I really appreciate the question. And, so this was 1993. So I was 24 years old at the time, and I really didn’t know a lot about hospice, other than, you know, I had heard of this in a college course. And actually, the training literally was a conversation with a hospice social worker for about two hours, who, you know, just wanted to sort of check out, who was this character? And gave me some understanding of the origins of the movement.
JOHN – You know, this is quite different today. Today there are quite extensive training programs for volunteers, but I would say that there was some gift in that for me, and you know, many people I interviewed spoke of those that they cared for – the hospice patients – as the greatest teachers. And I really was gifted with some folks who showed me the ropes. And in some sense, no matter what our training is, it’s always that way. You know, as teachers, as parents, as – whatever it is, nothing ever turns out as we expect. Any caregiving relationship is really being present to what’s alive, what someone whose needs really are as presented there.
JOHN – But you know, when I showed up this afternoon at Jerome’s house, you know, he was a thin, gay man and just about three months before he died.
JANA – This was your first hospice visit, correct?
JOHN – Yeah. So I was two years at my first stint in New Orleans. Most of the folks I cared for were young men – 30s 40s, 50s – dying of HIV AIDs and its complications. And so Jerome shut the door at his French Quarter apartment and he asked me, you know, how do we do this? And I, you know, offered, I don’t know, I’ve never done it before. And he gave me all these sensible responses. He said, Well, I don’t know either. I’ve never died before. And what a beautiful moment that was. That was this invitation to engage in this contemplative work of discovering together, what really are we doing in care? What really are his needs that I can show up for? And who am I in the caregiving? That exploring of figuring out how the giving of care is actually a receptive mode. It’s actually, who am I, and who am I becoming in this encounter?
JANA – Mm-hmm. So I found the story of your attendance at a conference at a maximum-security prison in 2013, and your exchange with the prisoner Wayne, who was a hospice volunteer there, to be so moving. I wondered if you could share a bit about that experience, and your experience of working with the volunteers in a state prison.
JOHN – Absolutely, thank you. So the writing of this book, the researching of this book, the long-term engagement in hospice, and then in end of life care more broadly, now as a hospital chaplain, but also in my own family, things like this – really as a path of integration, of cultivating of compassion, and wisdom and taking all of these experiences, all these moments and energies in my life, and they’re integrated into the path that I’m on. And so through my work of interviewing hospice volunteers, first in upstate New York and then in Germany, and in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, in various places around the country, and in two different countries, meeting lots and lots of different people from many walks of life. I interviewed twins, they were 18 years years old, they were the youngest. And the oldest was 102. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, white folks, Hispanic folks, black folks – really a spectrum of humanity here.
JOHN – And part of what I was doing in the research is hearing some common themes of how folks are able to show up for experiences, caring for folks that either the situation itself was challenging because of the smell, or because the person was in such severe pain and that really triggered them, or because of a sense of moral disgust – they actually didn’t like the person they were caring for – in Germany, an old unreconstructed Nazi, or in the United States a bigot – and how living into this hospice principle that no matter who shows up in the bed, we offer them loving care.
JOHN – So I’m hearing these stories and witnessing my own self at the hospice bedside, really stretching myself. All this fed in me a desire to – and this is a long way to come to your question, but I hope it’ll be worth the wait – of wanting to turn to prisons, where for me – where for me really is that edge of where I would be triggered, of where I would not be able to see someone’s humanity. So that’s specifically the man who killed my mother, but also just those who have taken other folks’ lives. And so this is a way of taking a research project – and it’s not just about, I’m studying this thing out there. I’m really investigating it. This is the contemplative method of really investigating who I am in this work.
JOHN – So I first started teaching. I taught a course on death and dying at a prison, at a university program there, and then did interviews with men who were volunteers at the prison. So these are men who are like me, in the sense that they’re all men, many of them, like me, did not have any previous caregiving experience, and like me, that have discovered this motivation to care and the opportunity to care. And then, unlike me, all of them had been involved in violent crimes. Most of them had taken someone’s life and so in some sense were very much unlike me. You know, as I came to discover, there is suffering on both sides here. So for me, there was this exploration of really wanting to understand the most radical case of how caring for those are dying really can help shape, and help us apprehend our humanity.
JOHN – So to come to this gentleman that I’m calling Wayne, this was at a conference that took place in the prison, and there was a discussion near the end of the conference that focused on compassionate release. And this is where it actually makes financial sense for the state, of, rather than having someone die in prison at the very end of their life, whether it be weeks or days in a prison infirmary, to have them released to be cared for in a community context. They’re not going to perpetrate more crimes at this point, so there’s no more question of deterrence or this sort of thing, and allow them to die, you know, where they could be surrounded by family, things like this.
JOHN – And so the story came up of how a prisoner had been released, you know, some decades after the murder, but because family members of the victim were outraged that the prisoner had been released, and protested, [the] local government put the person back in prison, and [he] died in prison not long after that. And so I’m hearing this, and hearing the – that many of the men discussing this and feeling a lot of pain around, you know, questions of what does it mean to serve your time? What is the meaning of justice, and compassion, things like this.
JOHN – And so, I stood and said, you know, Look, here I am, I’m a fellow hospice volunteer and understand the power of this work and the beauty of it. And I’m also someone who’s lost a family member to murder. And so I just affirmed, first of all, that I could understand the family’s reaction. I could understand that grief and the fantasy that we often have, that somehow, how that man died – for me this wasn’t a question – but somehow, that that’s going to do it. If they eventually get the death penalty, or whatever, that’s going to do it. So I could understand that struggle of that family and really have compassion for that family, but also for these men, just affirming their suffering there of – that, you know, there was suffering all around here.
JOHN – And so after the conference, this man came up to me, he had been in prison, I believe, for 23 or 24 years at this point on a murder conviction, and he had another 8 or 9 years to go, I think. And he thanked me, but it really was this, you know – we’re all human, I believe was what he said. And, you know, he was repeating back words that he heard me say when I spoke. And I really heard behind his statement of, you know, a question of, can I affirm his humanity? And I said, Yes, Wayne, we’re all human. And this man, he reached up a hug me and I embraced him. And he started shaking and shaking and shaking. I just held him until he could release into this truth, that yes, in fact, we are all human.
JANA – Wow, how powerful. And yet, the reality is that you did some prep work before you went into the prison hospice volunteer program. You wanted to know something about them before you went in to interview them. How did you prep?
JOHN – Well, I appreciate the question. And I’ll say that, you know, there’s no sugarcoating here. Like, there’s no sentimentalism about what I’m saying. There’s no, “let’s just all hold hands and the world’s a great place.” I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t need prisons, but there are folks who are dangerous that – you know, James, the man who killed my mother, he had killed someone just eight months before he killed my mother. And what would that have been like, had he been caught and imprisoned for that? You know?
JANA – Yeah.
JOHN – So I’m saying that even here, for me affirming the humanity of these men, showing up and caring at the bedside, I’m not advocating, hey, they deserve to be you know, released early from prison or something. That’s not a question I’m engaged in here – early release and all this, that’s not what I’m – what I’m focusing it on is that whatever the conditions of our lives are, we can all show up to them with compassion for ourselves, and affirm our capacity to the care of humanity. So that’s what I’m saying, sort of, is how beautiful that even in a prison that this can be possible.
JOHN – So for me, this really was at the bedside, seeing myself showing up for people that sometimes I didn’t really, you know, the people I cared for irritated me. It was hard to be in the room. And so a question arose, and it arose in different ways. And the first time it arose, it was a recognition, [that] I had had a disconnected relationship with my father prior to my mother being killed. But then after she was killed that disconnection continued, despite my efforts, as a young man, to try to heal that. And I realized that, you know, if I can show up at the bedside for folks that irritated me, can I bring this same energy to my father to understand his lot, and open to him and just listen to him? And so that really was the first way the question posed.
JOHN – And then eventually this came, can I turn to this prison in Cumberland, Maryland, and meet this man, James, who killed my mother? And then came to do that. And so it really just became a further progression of that, of then turning into a prison to find folks who were involved in caregiving there.
JANA – Just listening to you made me realize that this book could have been a really different kind of book. It could have been the story of your encounter with James, and there would have been quite a story there. And I’m tempted to ask what that encounter was like. In fact, I will, but you don’t have to answer the question. Because that’s not really what we’re here for. But you really piqued my interest, of course. And if you want to answer that you can, but obviously, you don’t have to. Would you rather not?
JOHN – Yeah, I’m happy to. I appreciate your question, and I’ll trust your intuition here on how the conversation can flow. So first, I do, in the last part of book – the book is divided into five sections, looking at five different components of compassion – and in this last part of the book, I’m looking at this quad of compassion where, you know, it’s one thing you know, as a parent, you know, if I hear a child crying – not just my kid, but hearing some child cry – you know, I want to relieve his suffering. And that is a natural human inclination when there is suffering. We human beings have a physiological response, an innate desire to want to relieve that suffering.
JOHN – Now, there’s all kinds, there’s all kinds of ways that we just get disconnected and cut ourselves off from that natural impulse. And so in society we’ve got all kinds of stigmas and stereotypes, and ways of “othering” – taking whole swathes of humanity and making these categories of people that are somehow not like us and therefore, we can cut ourselves off and feel contempt for and whatnot. And then we can have experience of suffering of our own, where we can wall our own selves off in pity and disconnect.
JOHN – So in this final section of the book, I’m really looking at this possibility of opening ourselves more and more to extend compassion wherever there is suffering. So I do write about healing with my father and meeting with James in this part of the book. And I would say that it’s quite relevant to this conversation about caregiving, because in some sense, it was sort of like showing up to see James that first day. So that’s the mindset that I write in the book, of being trained – I’m putting trained in air quotes here – by Jerome, that first hospice patient, of – I had a beginner’s mind. You know, what are we doing here? What is possible here? Trusting that, with my good intention, it could be, you know, that there was some possibility there.
JOHN – I do write more about my care of James later in the book where, some things I did, you know, were not quite so skillful and I was able to learn from that. But I showed up at the prison here, I had, I had turned towards meditation, had been meditating for many, many years. Also, various compassion practices for exploring my own suffering and for wanting to, sending healing energy to others. And so this was part of my preparation for going to the prison, where I wasn’t looking to get anything from James. I wasn’t looking to get a confession or any sort of reconciliation, or forgiveness or anything like this. This really was a space where, here is a human being, really the only human being that I’ve ever like fantasized about killing. And just simply wanting to be in his presence and to see what it would be like to have some other intention in my heart.
JOHN – And with that, also to investigate, what would it be like if I’m feeling I’m really somehow okay – somehow with this, I’m okay with this? I’m really not burning up in resentment, destroying my life in resentment. Am I spiritually bypassing something? Am I cutting myself off some sort of rage? That really was the question for me. So I really want to investigate, knowing that my own healing was – means I’ve got to turn towards my own rage, I’ve got to integrate that.
JOHN – So I showed up at the prison, I had support, I had connected with a group – with a woman, Lauren Abramson who, at the time the organization was called Community Conferencing, of bringing together typically juvenile offenders and those they’ve harmed, to try to have some sort of restorative justice there. And so she supported me in making a contact with James’s caseworker. And so yeah, [I] showed up at the prison and, you know, James’s caseworker was quite nervous, and was projecting onto me what I was trying to get from him, and telling me he’s going to retry his case and all this sort of stuff. And –
JANA [overlapping] – they thought you were gonna want to retry his case, did you say?
JOHN – No, they thought that I was going to want to try to get an apology – you know, a confession from him.
JANA – Oh, I see.
JOHN – And knowing, knowing that this wasn’t going to be forthcoming. So I’m simply saying that in some ways – as odd as this may sound on the outside – in some ways, showing up and being with him was no more or less difficult than showing up for other realities in my life. Of, you know, showing up for, you know, a baby crying at four in the morning or two in the morning when you just want to sleep. Or showing up for that patient where you walk into the room and the smell is pretty horrendous. Or showing up for my own suffering, you know, when I’ve lost this job, or that. And so I was well prepared to reveal who I was, and to investigate who I was in that encounter. So that’s what I could say took place there.
JANA – Mm-hmm. And how did he react?
JOHN – Sure.
JANA – Because there’s two sides to this story, obviously,
JOHN – Well, I had imagined that – I had engaged in a contemplative practice prior to this meeting, where I am speaking, I’m imagining my best self speaking to the best – James’s best self, and saying what I need to say, and then imagine – and literally writing this out, like his response. And then imagining responding, and having this go back and forth until there’s nothing else to be said. And I imagined that James would, you know, he was on PCP when he killed my mother, and I remember in the courtroom him denying that he did it. I imagined him continuing to deny and, and I imagined him feeling sorry for me but feeling like he had nothing to do with it. And this really is what presented in the room.
JOHN – And it really began where I simply described the suffering of losing my mother and the impact on my family, you know, that I was aware of, even moving on to folks in my family who weren’t even born yet at that time. And my sense was that this man was listening. He held eye contact with me, and I saw him receive this, and he even said something – offered a word of compassion that did not feel faked here. And also, you know, in his mind [he] had this clarity that he didn’t do this. And his, you know, as I describe in the book, what he said was quite tortured. And I think there’s a part of him that does – when we have a blackout experience perhaps it does have some embodied memory of what took place. But he thought that I was coming – “if you’re coming here to tell me you hate me” sort of thing, and in fact, what I learned there in meeting with him is that his mother died when he was in prison.
JOHN – And he shared this grief of not being able to be there with her. And I’m imagining, you know, perhaps there are those who are listening who have lost someone to murder and could imagine, sort of, a “just desserts” in this. And could sort of imagine some sort of joy in that. And I can understand that. I can understand that my younger self would have delighted in him getting what he deserved. And while I’m glad that he is in prison, and will not be released from prison so that he cannot kill anyone else outside of prison, I did recognize a moment of empathy there, that this man was not able to be there for his mother. And so for whatever mystery it is, there was that sensibility that I was able to touch into myself there.
JANA – Wow, what a powerful experience. And a courageous thing to do, on your part. This is such a fascinating part of the book, but of course you interviewed lots of types of people, not just prison inmates and volunteers in hospice programs in prisons. You interviewed people who became involved with hospice without really having any idea of it, and thinking that they weren’t necessarily cut out for it. I really loved how you refer to the myth that it takes, quote, a special kind of person to care for a dying person. And certainly the examples that you’ve provided across the spectrum in the book prove that, when you read about their back stories.
JANA – But one of the things that I was especially moved by was the fact that you were able to care for your mother-in-law before she died of cancer – Tula. I love what you wrote about how caring for her allowed you to experience something you weren’t able to do with your own mother. I wonder if you could share a little bit about that caregiving experience.
JOHN – Absolutely. And I’ll, I’ll begin by speaking some about what you mentioned – this notion that there are no unlikely candidates to do this. I would say that, you know, I would have never imagined, for me, I was a 24-year-old, straight guy, you know, with no caregiving background and no family upbringing of engaging in any kind of either volunteerism, or charity work, or caregiving work. And so here I was, in the middle of the AIDS crisis, you know, in this tremendous suffering in the gay community as a straight guy. It was like a really unlikely scenario for so many reasons.
JOHN – And what I discovered in myself and with so many people I interviewed in the book, who, you know, some, you know, came to hospice volunteering after years and years of caregiving either as a nurse or sometimes as a teacher – for some folks it was, you know, I cared for my dying husband. And you know, that could go on for years and years. And for one gentleman, he cared for his brother when he was dying, and discovered then that he had both the capacity and the interest, that other members of his family didn’t have who loved his brother just as much. But then there were folks who, sometimes in really humorous ways, found themselves volunteering for hospice, signed up and not really knowing what they were signing up for. And, you know, and so I really enjoyed putting those stories in the book. And with the right context, with the right support, we can do this.
JOHN – And so part of the beauty for me in writing the book was that as I was finishing the book, I was caring for my mother-in-law Tula. I actually, in the final six months of her life, I lived with her and her husband off and on for about half of that final six months of her life, and wrote parts of the book while caring for her, and had the opportunity to read some chapters of the book to her – early drafts – and have her response to that.
JOHN – But Tula was, you know, she had had cancer, breast cancer, for over two decades. And I would just say that her living and reception of me and of others around her was a most tremendous gift in my life for so many reasons. She was not afraid to be real with me, not afraid to be real with those around her, and truly open to receive care. You know, she received me as a son, into the family. I really felt in my adult life, she was the mother to me in my adult life. And I truly felt that this was the case here.
JOHN – And so there was a moment I write about in the book where she was sitting on the sofa, and I was helping her put her shoes on. So I’m sort of kneeling down in front of her on the carpet putting her shoes on and she asked me, John, am I being a burden to you right now? And the honesty that she could ask that. And, you know, I was really grateful that it could be really dismissed quite easily: Tula, do you understand how you are blessing my life, by allowing me to…” You know, the simple, the most simple act. Whether it was putting on her shoes or helping her to the commode, or making food even though she was at a point where she wasn’t really able to eat. But just having her delight in the beauty of the salmon and the salad, and having me just sitting next to her bed, and her delighting in me eating it and just delighted in seeing how beautiful it was. I just – those kind of moments. What more could you possibly ask for? So what a blessing that this woman who received me into her family as her own son, that I got to love my mother this way.
JANA – Yeah, that was so moving. And she probably really appreciated your saying, authentically, you know, No, this is not a burden. What do you want caregivers to take away from this book?
JOHN – Well, that’s a great question. Thank you. You know, I’ve made an offering. And what I would want is for folks to take away whatever is there for them. And so, when I read a book, you know, the author has intentions but really, for me, when I hear a book, you know, engage in the conversation, you know, hear a poem, see a sunset, whatever it might be, whatever is being offered to me – that I am there showing up for what’s real for me. That whatever is of value to me. And so that’s really the broadest intention of the book, is that those who pick it up would engage. Use the practices in the book, that cultivate this contemplative mindset, to really see what comes up for them. And to, you know, not be convinced by anything I’m saying, not to buy into anything or feel they’ve gotta do something, but really to investigate to what extent what’s offered can help illuminate their own experience.
JOHN – With that said, I think oftentimes as caregivers, we can really feel that we’re alone. We can, sort of, talk of burnout and oftentimes of compassion fatigue, which is a bit of a misnomer because it’s really an empathy fatigue. Compassion actually is enlivening. It’s filling us, inspiring us rather than beating us down. And so I hint at some of that in the first part of the book, where I’m really encouraging readers to see themselves This is something that’s been really beneficial for me, inspiring for me, is seeing myself as part of a lineage of compassion. And so the book is looking at the hospice movement and looking at the founders, and those who come before and creating the spaces – put their own struggles of grief and of meaning, just like me.
JOHN – But really have folks understand that what we sometimes call self-care, to sort of expand that concept to include the understanding – the communal context of our care, and having gratitude and helping to create more uplifting circumstances for our care. And encouraging folks to take what could be a burden – it could be, it’s, in some sense, it’s not silly that older folks might feel like a burden, because many people do approach caregiving as an imposition on our lot. This is part of the sickness of our culture of individualism. And so to inspire folks, encourage folks to look at how caregiving could actually be a pathway for what I can call spiritual practice, or for cultivating compassion, for investigating who they are, or showing up to life. To find joy in really unlikely places.
JOHN – So there are very practical exercises in the book that folks can use. And each chapter has a contemplative practice. So that would be the idea, that it isn’t just stories about other people’s experience or teachings – that’s kind of nice – but to have a book that could really help folks integrate, whether they’re volunteering in hospice or caring for a family member, or as a parent, or any other kind of caring context, that can really help inform and shape how they care.
JANA – Mm-hmm. It takes a bit of time to get to that place, doesn’t it? You reach this point where as a caregiver, you’re so burned out and beaten down, you have to find a way of coping, because there’s no way you can sustain this over the long haul. And it is a long journey. And in the beginning, I think so many caregivers are resistant for whatever reasons, maybe they resent that other siblings aren’t getting involved, maybe they were thrust into the situation, maybe they’re frustrated that they don’t have any support. And so, you know, you kind of go through this period of fighting what you’re having to do, maybe and then you’re exhausted and you think, Okay, how am I going to make this work?
JANA – And I love the idea of cultivating what you call an awareness voice. And I love the fact that one of the volunteers realized that it did not need to be done on a meditation cushion, necessarily. But… John, did you have any last thoughts you want to add before we close?
JOHN – Yeah, can I speak to that right there, this awareness voice?
JANA – Absolutely.
JOHN – Yeah, that, you know, oftentimes, you know, as I write in the book, in talking about, you know, contemplative caregiving or there’s other books like on, you know, mindful caregiving, something like this. There’s a lot of offerings these days of, you know, mindfulness practices that can be helpful for folks, for caregivers. And oftentimes I found the assumption is that contemplative caregiving means that you’re a meditator. You know, these are Buddhist folks who, you know, have very valuable teachings and practices to offer.
JOHN – And yet, what I want to affirm here is – so, two things. One, caregiving itself can be a practice of deepening awareness, and deepening compassion. So it can itself be a contemplative practice. And of course, if we’re in it for the long haul, we do need moments of respite. We do need spaces – time for reflection. And so for some folks that can be running, for some folks that can be sitting in the chapel and praying. For some folks that can be reading poetry, reading Psalms, and it can be sitting on a meditation cushion. So I’m both affirming that caregiving itself – I would say when it is true caregiving it actually is a compassion practice of cultivating who we are. And it is also true that we need spaces for rejuvenation. We need spaces for reflection on our practice of caregiving. And the intention is that the book would support exactly that.
JANA – We’ve been speaking with Dr. John Eric Baugher. He’s the author of the new book, “Contemplative Caregiving: Finding Healing, Compassion and Spiritual Growth Through End of Life Care.” The mission of John’s work is to foster healing, compassion and spiritual growth in the lives of individuals, organizations, and the wider society. We will have a link in the show notes to John’s website, where you can learn more about his work and buy his book. But if you’d like to jump in right now, go to John Eric Baugher dot com – that’s johnericbaugher.com – and dive right in. There are so many great resources there. I’ve availed myself of some of them already. John, thank you so much for being on the show, and for this beautiful book. I really enjoyed it. It’s accessible and it’s uplifting and filled with exercises that we can all use to find peace and strength in our own lives and in the lives of people we care for. Thanks, John.
JOHN – Thank you so much.