Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bay Area JHC Kol Haneshama – Class 1

By Susan Esther Barnes

Earlier this week, I attended the first evening of the Kol Haneshama class series given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The purpose of the class is to train volunteers to work at the Jewish Home in San Francisco with people who are approaching the end of life. The class is also open to people like me who don’t live in San Francisco, and who will be using what we learn in our own community.

The class series consists of two evenings this week, two evenings next week and one full weekend in between. That is a lot to pack into a short period of time, especially considering the evenings are from 5:15 until 10 pm and the two weekend days are each from 8:30 am to 7 pm.

We were told that the evening sessions would include a meal, but I was a bit surprised when the meal started at 5:30 and continued until 6:30. This meant we had an hour and 15 minutes, plus whatever extra time beforehand for those of us who arrived early, to do nothing but talk with each other and to eat.

Later, when one of the trainers went over a list of things to keep in mind during the sessions, I realized what was going on. We were told, “The process is the content,” and I realized that part of the plan must be to help us to slow down from our busy day, as well as to give us a chance to get to know each other a little, before the training started.

In keeping with the “process is the content” idea, we continued with an ice breaker activity, a little text study, and a meditation. By that point, frankly, I was getting a bit impatient. I know many human beings require more time to get to know other people than I do before they feel safe enough to start talking certain things, but I wanted to move on.

Finally, we got to the last activity of the evening, which I found fascinating.

One of the trainers passed out one photo to each of us, face down. He explained that these were all photos of people who had been in hospice. We turned them face-side-up when he told us to do so, so we could look at the person in front of us. We were sitting in a circle, and he told us to pass our photo to the person on our right whenever he said, “Next.”

As we looked at the photos, he told us to notice certain things about them, such as, “What is surprising about this photo,” or “What do you see in the person’s environment?” From time to time, as he talked, he said, “Next,” and we passed the photo we had and took another from the person on our left.

At one point – and this was brilliant – he handed a couple of extra photos to some people, so they had three photos at once. He also took the photos from some people, so they had none. Then, he started to talk about things like how, while we are doing this work, we may go on vacation, expecting to see the same people when we return, but by the time we get back, one or more of them may be gone. He also talked about how some volunteers would form deep relationships with people we may never spend much time with, or may never even meet.

At the same time, he started occasionally saying, “Next,” much more frequently. As a result, some people, especially those with three photos, barely got any time to see the photos they had, while others had no photos to look at, at all. I thought this was a great way to model how unbalanced this work must feel sometimes.

Afterward, we talked about the photos, and we had a chance to say which one startled us, or which photo we fell in love with, or which one made us uncomfortable, etc.

One photo we talked about for a while was of a young man holding up his driver’s license. We discussed how patients sometimes feel a loss of identity as well as mobility, and the driver’s license symbolizes both. We also mentioned how different he looked from his license photo, and how challenging it must be, when one becomes ill, to find oneself looking so different.

I was particularly struck by the fact that most of us don’t like our driver’s license photo, but that if we lost a bunch of weight, and/or our hair, or suffered other changes in our looks due to illness, how most of us would dearly love to look like that license photo again. As they say, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

I was also captivated by a photo of a woman with her eyes closed and her mouth open. It reminded me of my friend Rose, may her memory be a blessing, on the morning of the day she died. She, too, was unresponsive, and just lying there, breathing with her mouth open. I would have liked to sit with the woman in the photo, as I sat with Rose that morning.

I am looking forward to what the rest of the training has in store, although I’m sure much of Thursday night through Sunday will pass in a blur. Stay tuned.

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