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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reports from the Zen Hospice: Stories Heard and Lessons Learned by a Volunteer

by Chris Okon

In his solo performance "Reports from the Zen Hospice," storyteller/monologist Josh Kornbluth shares stories heard and lessons learned as a newbie hospice volunteer and artist-in-residence at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.

Having had no direct experience with death and dying, he at first did not know what he could do to help at the hospice. Death was out of mind, separate, distant. His father's funeral years ago seemed more like a movie in which family members were extras and Dad was the "prop" devoid of the astonishing individuality and quirkiness. "Death has always felt," Kornbluth said, "..kind of like the sun: something that's there but you don't (can't?) look at it. Well, you can look at it..with the same eyes, and mind and heart, that take in the infinitely astonishing joyful miracle of a child's birth."

As he spent time with the "residents" (not "patients"), he soon came to know them as people full of personality and stories. He shares some of these stories--Donna, once homeless and now wracked with pain but who sat up in bed whenever Jerry Springer was on TV; George, who jokingly called his distended abdominal tumor was his "baby"; Diane, whose dying wish was to eat the lunch special, a bottomless salad bowl, at Olive Garden. These people, the dying, were very much alive, moment by moment. And Kornbluth learned that he didn't need to do something. He..and they..could just be.

As a storyteller, he perceived the urgency these people had to define their narrative, to find the story of who they were in the world. The ballet dancer. The grandfather. The woman who survived a hard life on the streets.

All of these people died; beds were opened up and quickly filled, then soon empty again. And sitting with a dead person you watched TV with, or played games with, or simply listened to was natural, even beautiful as you realize that the essence of that person was no longer in room, just a body. "We are all finite," he says, "but the bowl is bottomless."

"Reports from the Zen Hospice" is still a work in progress being honed by the "improv" he does with each audience at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, CA. The show has been extended through November 20th. You can get an idea of the show at and read about Kornbluth's work at

To learn about the Zen Hospice Project, go to

Note: Hospice monologues as performance is becoming more prevalent. For example, The Soul of the Living and Dying, through Storyhealers International.

As a volunteer with Hospice by the Bay, ​Christine Okon​ offered ​gentle bodywork to many people at the end of life, feeling privileged to hear their stories. She learned much from Les Morgan who founded Growth House, ahead of its time for using technology to build a social network for those involved with EOL. Christine lives in San Francisco and works for Kaiser Permanente on the patient safety aspects of their EHR.

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