Dr. BJ Miller (L)

While an undergraduate at Princeton University, BJ Miller was electrocuted and nearly died, and the accident left him a triple amputee. Today, as executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, he has built his life work around the care of others who are approaching death. Miller joins us as part of our First Person series on local leaders and innovators.

BJ Miller, palliative care specialist at UCSF and executive director of the Zen Hospice Project

  • Thank you for this story of transformation, healing, and holding space for others to pass into the mystery beyond. I wonder, does Dr. Miller on how we can best prepare for death, even while we are young and healthy? Also, how can we best be present for those we love when the time of death is near?

    • Please forgive my typo. I meant to write, “Does Dr. Miller have thoughts on how we can best prepare for death, even while we are young and healthy?
      Also, how we can we best be present for those we love when the time of
      death is near?

      • シュラットマン リック

        As a volunteer for Zen Hospice Project, I would venture to say that one very effective way for preparing for one’s own death, as well as for preparing to be present for those we love when the time of death is near, is to become a hospice volunteer. At ZHP, we are fond of saying that our hospice residents are our “teachers” and there is so much to be learned from them – things about the practical side of caring for those who are approaching death, about learning how to be present, as well as for (quietly) examining our own feelings about our own eventual dying and death.

        • bj miller


          • befofsf

            dear dr. miller:

            thank you for your compassionate and enlightened work re: palliative care, death, and dying, as well as your very articulation of the problems faced by this population. they are underserved, misunderstood, and often misdiagnosed, always in serious need for clinicians like yourself. I have managed chronic back/head pain for the past 30 years and finding the right md, as well as other healthcare workers such as therapists, has been absolutely critical to my recovery.

            after 10 years, I have finally completed my doctorate in clinical psychology, with plans to work in the palliative/chronic pain field. being a wounded healer gives one a special insight and empathy, particularly with others who have, as I do, an invisible disability. your comment on your disability being an instant connection with others who are physically disabled was especially moving to me, because those of us who appear perfectly healthy, and are anything but, often struggle with having to do an exhausting amount of explanation, education, and sometimes justification on our “bad dog” days. I find myself in the position of constantly having to “out” myself, admitting to my limitations, as I never know which body I’m going to wake up with on any given day, and whether or how much help I might need just to do basic self-care functions. I wish I could say it doesn’t sometimes gall or embarrass me to have to both ask for and then graciously receive the assistance, but, as michelangelo, ancora imparo (I am still learning.)

            I have worked with nearly every population, including the disabled and the elderly, but not specifically with the dying, which is a great oversight on the part of the (already scarce and difficult to find) psychology postdoctoral training programs. I can only hope to find (or create) a placement such as the zen hospice and learn the valuable lessons from all the resident “teachers.”

            If what you arethinking about doing with your life, and what you say you are doing with your life, and what you are feeling about what you are doing with your life, and what you actually do with your lifeare all the same, then you have your right livelihood.


  • ES Trader

    Listening to Dr Miller, commenting on his dogs, thoughts on life and death, it is apparent selecting Princeton to broaden his education and humanity achieved his goal.

    It’s too bad that to many of us didnt seek the same path and we thought the purpose of college was for a career and missed the entire point of advanced education.

    Good for you and keep up the good work !

    • bj miller

      thanks kiyoshi! my older sister tipped me off on the great potential of a liberal arts education. i’m very grateful for that advice – and getting it in time to do something about it! cheers and thx to you, b

  • Dana Chiappone

    Hi Dr. BJ – Hearing your voice is healing. This is Dana Chiappone, and you helped my husband Cary, and our entire family through his illness and passing. You not only focus on the patient, but the care giver as well. Please share with us your philosophy of supporting the care giver and the entire family. Your love, support and advice continues to get me through days, even four years post passing. Thank you Dr. BJ, we appreciate you.

    • bj miller

      dear dana! so good to hear from you. this is the third response to your note above, but somehow it keeps vanishing. my first time blogging… all i really want to say is that you know the art of caregiving so well. i’ve seen it! but i’ll say here that the secret is being human, and all that entails, including suffering yourself. which, in turn, means you need to give yourself time and space to deal with all the fallout. and you need to look for things to ‘take’ from the exchange. it’s a circle, a loop. not a pole (well person caring for sick person; instead two human beings dealing with a shared existence together). think of you and cary so often. with love and admiration, b

  • Diane Garrett

    I have a severely disabled adult daughter who was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. A palliative care doctor at Mills Peninsula Hospital referred us to Hospice. We don’t know her life expectancy, but Mission Hospice in San Mateo is our salvation through this process. I think Hospice is amazing and people need to understand Hospice is just not a time of death service. They offer so much more.

    • bj miller

      hi diane – i’m sending you and your daughter lots of love. not easy, no doubt, but i’m glad you’ve found your way to such good care. i wish you both the best as you make the most of what time you have. we should all do likewise. yes indeed those guys at mission hospice do great work. there are so many skilled and good people in this world. yours, b

      • Diane Garrett

        Hello. I am so overwhelmed that you took the time to write to me. I read the article in SFGate about you and your remarkable life. You are an inspiration. My Katie, who is 39, has had a very tough go. She has had severe CP her whole life and she is one of the folks who understands but cannot speak. I never thought she would have a long life due to her severe challenges, but I never expected a Dx of cancer. I have always been a strong positive person, but now Mission Hospice is certainly helping me to navigate this new territory. They are wonderful. I did look at the Zen Hospice center after Katie’s Dx in April and I thought it looked fabulous. I was worried about where she could go if her group home in San Mateo could not serve her needs. I’m not sure you could handle all the care involved with a person who needs such physical care, however. But, is certainly a place that I have in my mind. The most important thing now is that Katie’s discomfort is managed and that she has the best quality of life she can have. I have always had that as my goal for her,Diane D so I’m not giving up now! Thanks again for your compassion for Katie and everyone you touch. I live in Tiburon, so if you are still living in Mill Valley, I will watch for you sprinting around Marin! Diane Garrett, dianegarrett@me.com

  • Steve Heilig

    Superb interview, covering many topics so well, and thanks to both Krasney and Miller!

    • bj miller

      thx steve! keep all the good work i know you do. cheers, b

  • Sheilah Britton

    Dr. Miller, Michael–what a wonderful discussion.
    I was poet-in-residence at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix in collaboration with the creative writing program at Arizona State University. I worked for six years with patients at the end of life–both through hospice and palliative care. I worked one-on-one with patients in the creation of poems. It was the most richly rewarding experience of my life and I feel the people with whom I worked (and their families) were rewarded with the experience, as well. I am retired now and live in Santa Rosa. I would be interested in knowing if the Zen Hospice Program intends to extend it reach to the North Bay. Bless you for the work you and your colleagues practice.

    • bj miller

      thank you sheilah – at this time, zen hospice only sees ‘patients’ in our guest house in the city and in laguna honda hospital. if you can make it to the city, please consider volunteering with us (http://www.zenhospice.org/volunteer-training). residential homes like ours are sadly extremely rare – and there is not one in the north bay, yet. we’d love to grow to serve the wider bay area, but we’re not yet there. otherwise, you might try any of the home hospice agencies (e.g., hospice of petaluma, hospice by the bay, and others). please do – the world of palliative care + art is so ripe! and keep your eyes on us at ZHP – we are developing an artist-in-residence program. so good. yours, b

  • Heidi Perryman

    Such a touching and enlivened discussion. Thank you both for this.

  • Kate Grant

    Dear Dr. Miller: You are for me a profoundly inspiring man. I printed a long article about you I found after the show and intend to share it with my fourteen year old son. I was in grad school at Princeton beginning in the fall of 1991 and had heard about your tragic accident that happened before i arrived, but I never knew what became of you. I am moved beyond words with how you have chosen to turn your loss into the priceless ability to provide love and deep empathy to your patients. Words fail. Bless you and your parents for raising such an extraordinary man. Kate Grant

    • bj miller

      thank you kate! so kind of you. i’ll just say that i’m no different from you i bet – it’s just perhaps that the details of my life are a little on the dramatic side! a human being trying to make sense of his experiences and get through the day. sound familiar? cheers and thank you, b

  • Lubov Mazur

    Everyone who experiences hospice says, if they had known what it really
    was, they would have started earlier. My mother is in hospice, doing
    well, and not dying of anything except being 98. The people are

  • karelin r

    I would love to volunteer. I’m a pre-med student with a lot of passion for the mental health field. my mom died when I was 7 years old, this gave me an unique perspective of life and dead. Someday I would like to help others. Is the hospice open for any volunteers?

  • alicewong

    I’m lucky to say I met BJ (and Vermont) when I was in grad school at UCSF. I think our current culture denies death and has an aversion to the realities of death and dying. Unfortunately, many people perceive disability as a life filled with suffering and pain. There are a lot of intersections around societal attitudes toward death, illness and disability that fuels stereotypes of people with disabilities as ‘broken’ or ‘not well.’ Thank you for sharing your story, BJ!

    • bj miller

      amen alice! much fertile ground to explore between disability and palliative care. the two forces have much to share and inform one another. life’s work for you and me alice. miss seeing you more regularly – hoping you’re doing well.

  • giftofgrief

    I’ve had the opportunity to both volunteer for the last three years and worked on staff for the last year and a half at Zen Hospice Project. I came to the work from my own experience of a loved one’s suicide & as a long-term meditator in order to gain better understanding of my own relationship to death. What remains and has been learned in my time there is a deep appreciation for what can be transformed in a resident’s (and in their family’s life) – including my own – when these people are met with kindness and presence at the bedside. It’s both simple and profound. Every human on this planet should be so fortunate to experience death in this way, as well as have access to the compassionate care that Zen Hospice provides to those living at the Guest House and those living on the Hospice/Palliative ward at Laguna Honda hospital. If you’re at all inclined to explore this for yourself, becoming a volunteer caregiver. The ZHP training is a beautiful place to start your own journey.

  • befofsf

    sorry, I meant to attribute the quote to claude whitemeyer, not to sign the letter w/his name. this quote exactly expressed why I went on this long journey and why I continue to pursue it, as it’s not over until I complete my 1500 hrs of postdoctoral internship and take my licensing tests. this was a very long, but nonetheless heartfelt one of thanks to you, dr. miller. please keep fighting the good fight.

  • Darya Mead

    Dr. Miller, I only caught the end of the discussion at night as I was drifting off to sleep. I think you came to my yoga class, with teacher Manouso Manos on Monterey Blvd. many years ago. If it was you it was truly inspiring and incredible to watch you practice and something I think about often–amazing to hear about your work!

    • bj miller

      thx darya! yeah that was probably me. loved those classes. believe me – the inspiration went both ways. one of these days i hope to get back to manouso and rita. they did me right and good! cheers and thx to you, b

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