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San Francisco's Zen Hospice: Background information when reading Serious Face

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Serious Face


by Jon Mooallem

Serious Face by Jon Mooallem X
Serious Face by Jon Mooallem
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  • Published:
    May 2022, 320 pages


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Erin Lyndal Martin
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San Francisco's Zen Hospice

This article relates to Serious Face

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White Victorian rowhouse in San FranciscoIn an essay from Serious Face titled "A House at the End of the World," Jon Mooallem writes about Zen Hospice, a palliative care facility opened in San Francisco in 1986 by members of the local Zen Buddhist community who were heartsick seeing unhoused people dying on the streets. They had the idea to open a hospice that would offer them shelter and comfort while allowing the volunteers to practice service. This was also during the peak of the AIDS crisis, when people were afraid to come into contact with those who had contracted the illness, leaving many patients to die alone in hospital hallways.

Zen Hospice began very small with an all-volunteer staff and meager budget, operating from one room in a large Victorian house owned by the San Francisco Zen Center. The hospice ultimately took over the whole house as the program expanded, and it came to be known as the Guest House. Zen Hospice operated there until 2018, when the building had to be sold to pay off debts.

Though volunteers largely came from the Zen Buddhist community, most patients weren't Buddhist. However, Buddhist ideals were the foundation of the work: cultivating an open heart, being in the present, and treating death as natural. Anyone with a diagnosis of six months or less could apply to live in the Guest House. Buddhist practices of mindfulness and compassion imbued the work done there, all with the goal of preserving patients' individuality within a community setting. The house was chockablock with comfortable couches, eclectic artwork and flowers. When someone died, the other residents would gather to throw flower petals on the deceased's body.

The loss of the Guest House was a blow to the hospice, but volunteers continue their mission at Laguna Honda Hospital, which mainly serves low-income patients. Though the setting is more clinical, an ever-growing team of volunteers provides the same personalized care and support as before. The hospice also continues its work through educational programs conducted both in person and online.

In "House at the End of the World," Jon Mooallem interviews former executive director of Zen Hospice BJ Miller, a palliative care doctor who is a triple amputee. Miller works with the public to reshape ideas about death and disability. His TED Talk, What Really Matters at the End of Life, has amassed over 15 million views, and he is coauthor of the book A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death. He recently started a new project, the Center for Dying and Living. Still in the early stages, it's a website designed for people to share their own stories related to living with illness and providing or receiving care.

While its legal name is still Zen Hospice, the group has evolved to become the Zen Caregiving Project, where volunteers share their knowledge about end-of-life care with other caregivers and physicians. Over the years, the organization has received public attention in a commendation from the Dalai Lama and features on television, including the Oprah Winfrey Show. Most of all, the Zen Hospice and subsequent Caregiving Project have offered hope, and not just to those they've served directly. Their impact is much larger, providing not only service, but an example to us all of how to make peace with death.

Zen Hospice Guest House, courtesy of Zen Hospice Project via Buddhistdoor Global

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

This article relates to Serious Face. It first ran in the July 13, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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