The experience of standing by her father’s deathbed prompted Jito Sasaki to quit her university job and become a Buddhist nun devoted to hospice care and the emotional and spiritual needs of terminally ill patients.
Sasaki was born into an ordinary household and majored in ancient history, working as an academic official at her alma mater after graduation in 1991.
Sasaki found the work rewarding, but her views changed soon after her father died of cancer.
She then decided to become a nun at Kannonji Temple in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, so she could work on a graduation thesis in the place where her father had transcribed a Buddhist sutra before he died.
“As I recall, I became a nun and now attend to terminally ill patients and their families because I was at my father’s deathbed,” said Sasaki, who now serves as deputy master of the temple.
Sasaki visits the Hijirigaoka Hospital in Tama, Tokyo, several days each month as a volunteer in its hospice program.
When hospital staff introduce her to the patients, they always say that she listens well and pays attention to whatever they say.
In response to such praise, Sasaki often says that she “happens to be a nun” because she speaks as one, but only when asked.
After speaking with patients, Sasaki plays the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, to help remind them of the precious time they’ve spent with their families. Sasaki also plays music that was loved by the departed when spending time with their families.
“My father and people I saw pass at this hospital are still with me because I remember them very much and I feel they are pushing me to move forward,” Sasaki said. “People we have lost move us as an eternal presence.”
While the use of hospice care to moderate the physical pains of terminally ill patients has come to be widely practiced in Japan, concern about how to ease emotional and spiritual pain is growing stronger among religious people like Sasaki as well as with medical workers.
Nurse Hideko Oshima, a specialist in palliative care at Ageo Central General Hospital in Saitama Prefecture, continues to study mental health care after 20 years working at hospices.
Oshima practices Raja Yoga, a form of meditation in which the mind is trained to focus on one point.
The meditation allows Oshima to maintain a sense of calm, even in unexpected situations, so that patients and their families feel a sense of reassurance, she said.
“Some families said my presence itself served as their support,” Oshima said.
The palliative care ward set up by Ageo Central General earlier this year has a bright atmosphere and is decorated with paintings meant to facilitate the healing process.
Adding to the comfortable atmosphere, Oshima, who is also an aroma therapist, stresses the importance of aromas in palliative care “because they often match patients’ memories in life,” she said.
“Many people depart after settling, understanding or having something bloom in the mind,” Oshima said.
“I have learned a lot from them and I strongly feel that those who are departing are teachers,” she said.