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Rev. Amy Ziettlow

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Creating Sacred Space in Life and Death

Posted: 03/10/11 09:28 PM ET

I love the drama and transformation of a home makeover show. No matter the episode or series, a common formula shapes each makeover. First, we meet the trusting homeowners, all smiles, seemingly ready and waiting anxiously for the gods of paint and design to descend upon their home. And then ... the work begins. As the experts walk casually through their space, pointing out countless inadequacies, faults, glaring elements of poor taste, extravagances, eccentricities, and just plain ugliness, the smiles quickly fade. The painful reality of facing the truth of just how bad their aesthetic really is and how much they will have to let go in order for new beauty to emerge hits hard and fast.

Furniture moves out, paint colors are chosen, accessories come to life, and a new normal begins to reign. By the end, the smiles re-emerge from the dry wall dust and crown molding. In each show, I witness how for new expressions of life to be born, we must empty out the old versions of ourselves, hold them up to the cleansing light of intense inspection, relinquish what falls out of step with the truth of today, re-purpose those elements of lasting quality, and ready ourselves to welcome a new expression of being alive.

Perhaps my love for home makeover shows fuels my love for the season of Lent. With Ash Wednesday, a season of spiritual inspection and makeover begins that involves our lives, our communities, even our worship space. We pare down the sanctuary ornamentation and the order of worship: taking down decorative banners, removing altar flowers, refraining from singing or saying the word "Alleluia," and editing out the Hymn of Praise from the Order of Worship. We must clean house, strike all the props of worship and praise in order to prepare for the new ways God will make a home in our lives.

In hospice care, we often use the image of the butterfly for the journey that our patients and their loved ones take. The butterfly symbolizes the journey of transformation from one expression of life into another, but also emphasis the importance of the home. Without the safety and support of the cocoon, transformation would not be possible.

The majority of the hospice patients we serve live and die in the comforts of their homes: their cocoons. Rearranging must be done at times to make room for new items that offer comfort and support to those facing varying stages of transformation from this life into the next. Walkers, wheelchairs, bedside commodes, hospital beds, oxygen concentrators, and so on are added to the home decor. We add necessary items incrementally and with as much grace as possible. Subtle arranging occurs in order to keep furniture as spatially normal as possible since the placement of furniture can be quite comforting.

In her book Sacred Dying, Megory Anderson illustrates the importance furniture placement in creating sacred space, especially when companioning someone who is facing the end of life. Once, she was called upon to vigil with a young man who was dying alone. Beginning on page 186, she writes:


"Paul was alone in the city. He couldn't have been more than a teenager, eighteen or nineteen at the most, and he had AIDS ... His family was quite religious and had been extremely upset when he'd come out to them as homosexual. Their strict religious convictions left them with a huge dilemma. Would they adhere to their church teachings at the expense of their son? I had known many cases where it came down to this choice, and regardless of the decision at the end, no one was the winner. Here I was again, seeing an abandoned child left to die alone and in pain."

She enters his cramped and chaotic space and begins talking with him about home. He describes in great detail his room at home. As she surveys the space around her, she see that with some moving of furniture they could makeover this room to look like his former room at home.


"Now hold on. I am going to move this bed into the corner. I'll try not to jiggle you too much." With that I slowly moved the bed into the corner of the room. Paul closed his eyes and held on to the sides of the bed. When he opened his eyes, he immediately began giving me directions on what to do next. "Okay, now the nightstand, and then move the dresser over against that wall over there."

Soon after they got his room makeover completed, Paul began to drift in and out of consciousness and when he awoke he would often be tearful and anxious. Ms. Anderson would comfort him by directing his attention to his room.


"Picture your house and your bedroom. Do you see them now? Paul nodded, eyes tightly closed.

"Can you smell something wonderful coming from the kitchen? What's your mother cooking?"
He smiled. "Pancakes," he said.

"Well, just stay with those pictures inside your mind. Smell the good smells and surround yourself with all those good feelings. Forget about anything bad. Right now, everything you have is good."

Paul dies several hours later in peace. With a simple room makeover and his imagination, he spent his finals hours in a place of love, in a sacred home. We all deserve a sacred cocoon.

"Just when the caterpillar thought all was lost, he turned into a butterfly." Anonymous

Visit www.familyscholars.org to read more about aging, death, and dying from Amy Ziettlow.