One evening while working as a Shanti Project Counselor on the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, I walked by the room of a young black man I had seen but never met. He hadn’t been out of his room for days and was close to death. It wasn’t my intention to visit him— I was on my way to see another patient— but I felt like I was sucked into his room.
He was clearly terrified. He had a severe case of AIDS-related pneumonia and was hyperventilating, despite receiving the maximum oxygen available through his large facemask. The mask amplified the sound of his breathing and added to the horrific image of this young man lying there, frozen in fear, his eyes wide open and fixed on a spot on the wall opposite his bed. When I spoke to him, I knew he was aware of me, even though he couldn’t take his eyes off that spot. He was trying so hard to maintain control that his body was rigid. I leaned over into his gaze, rested my hand on his chest, and just stayed with him for a while, breathing with him, feeling totally lost about what to do.
After what seemed like an eternity in silence, it became clear that the most compassionate thing I could do was deal with my own anxiety about feeling helpless and simply be honest with him—to speak from my heart.
“It’s really hard for me to see you so afraid like this, and I don’t know what to say or do,” I said. “But I can tell you about my experience working with other AIDS patients here. Many said that they were experiencing incredible peace as they approached death, and didn’t feel so afraid any more.”
I reported this to him not even as a certainty— just, “This is what I’ve heard.” This all took no more than 15 minutes, toward the end of which his respirations were slower and he was calming down. He never moved his eyes, but I had the clear sense that our brief contact had comforted him. I left, and a few minutes later he died