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The Zen of Dying

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Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Anthony Valentine, 72, is a hospice nurse at the nonprofit Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.

Q. What is the difference between traditional hospice and Zen hospice?

A. The difference is the level and quality of attention the Zen hospice approach can give. At the Zen Hospice Project, our whole idea is to help dying people live fully right up to the end. Drawing on the principles of Zen Buddhism, we bring a strong sense of simply being 100 percent present, with, and for, them. As well, we focus on offering a healthy dose of compassion and a lot of personal touch.

Do staff members have to have a meditation practice or background?

No, one doesn’t have to be a practitioner of any Eastern philosophy to work or volunteer here. Nor, for that matter, do residents or their families.

What was your work experience leading into your current job?

My first career was as a flight attendant for 10 years. Based out of Japan, I worked routes from the Far East to Europe. Then, when I moved to San Francisco in 1980, I received a nursing license and practiced as a nurse for 34 years, after which I retired.

Then you rejoined the work force? Why?

I felt something missing. I’m a very giving person and found I wanted to make that a priority in my life. One day, I visited a friend who works at the Zen Hospice Project, and as soon as I came to the front door — it’s in a big Victorian house in the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco — something spoke to me, like I belonged here. I decided that day to dedicate my life to providing comfort, care and compassion to residents and families transitioning to their next stage.

Had you worked in any hospice situation before?

No, but I was there with my mother, my sister-in-law and my closest friend as they died in hospice care. My work now is in essence my living memorial to them.

What are the best and worst parts of sitting with someone who’s dying?

Getting to witness the last phase of someone’s life cycle is a sacred time, really a gift. Ironically, it has put me more in touch with life; it reminds me to live this life fully. It’s heart-opening and heartbreaking at the same moment. Either way I’m not afraid of the process, for them or for myself. The hard part is letting go, even after a short time, of people you get to know.

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