Hospice Workers (and others) Meet to Contemplate Their Own Death

March 14, 2010

by Jeanne Denney, Mary Baier and Jerry Muhlenburg

I have spent the last six weeks helping people do something that Americans seem programmed young to avoid at all costs: think about death. Not just death facts and statistics. No. Our own personal death.

The premise of the five evening “Planning on Dying” class I just hosted was to learn what we practically need to know to prepare for our own good death and demise, and at the same time explore our experience with the process, perhaps discovering how our unconscious fears of death impact our lives. I hoped we would discover that death contemplation with support could ultimately enrich our daily life. It was a bit ambitious for five short evenings. Still, it was one of the most rewarding explorations I have done in a long time. Judging from the response of the class, it was good for them as well. Of the 11 people who participated in this experiment, four were hospice volunteers or worked with elderly, one had been a hospice aide at one time in the past, two were or had been struggling with serious illness, one was preparing herself to work with the elderly and the rest were simply adventurers of spirit.

Though a dying patient’s (or dead person’s) “wishes” are often discussed by death professionals and families, we seldom actually know what they would wish with certainty. This is because we seldom allow ourselves time to develop wishes for our own death before we are compromised by its processes. Our main wish is that just it doesn’t happen now! So, one of the first questions the class considered was what our best case deathbed scenario might be, and our deepest wishes for our dying process and after. Two class participants graciously shared some of their own creative writing about their discoveries, and offered to share it here on the Kairos Network Blog. May I introduce the wishes of clinical social worker and eldercare worker Mary Baier and the final words of hospice volunteer Jerry Muhlenburg:

On What I Wish for in My Dying by Mary Baier

    My greatest hope and desire for my dying is that I unshakably feel and believe in my friend, Alice’s, deep caring for me.

    Ideally, Alice will be at my death bed–if not, we will have met shortly before–or I can talk with her by phone, as we have so often.

    We will be silent together, as has been our practice. We will speak or not, as we are moved to–no script will be necessary. I shall know her caring, she shall know my love.

    There will be flowers, one of many pleasures we share.

    I will talk of Stephen and Allan and Lucille, whose dying I have had the honor of being part of, each dying with grace and courage, each being an example to me and to many.

    I like to believe I will be meeting them, though probably in a sense unimaginable to me.

    Perhaps there will be music, music of my younger years when I thought my life would be different from what it has been.

    I will remember the idea that it is not what we accomplish but what we have overcome which matters. This will give me a sense of peace.

    I will own my life, successes and failures, not least an ability to know love and give love.

    I will think of myself as a good friend, a good student, an exemplary patient,

    I will ask that I be remembered in the poetry which has moved me, hope that those remaining have glimpsed kindness, gentleness, empathy and caring.

    I will remember the good times, especially those existing in the midst of trauma.

    I will be grateful for all I have loved and learned, let go what is not to be, appreciate all that has given me, by so many, in so many ways

    I will let go in silence, knowing love needs no words.

    I shall reconcile myself to ending, hope for beginning.

    Visitors will come, responding to my invitation; I shall accept that some may not want to or be able. Jeanne will visit–I shall tell her how much her presence and teaching have meant to me, becoming part of my living and my dying.

    I shall make peace with my parents, each in their own way.

    I will do what I can to offer hope and comfort to all who surround me, whether or not they are present physically. To the extent possible, I shall say what needs to be to everyone I have loved. Cry if I need to, laugh if I want to, bless those whose presence has been a blessing for me.

    I shall know God while believing God is unknowable.

    I shall be sure my body is donated, especially my brain for research–perhaps help to find a way to treatment/cure for the illness from which there has been no escaping.

    I know I may die alone. I have friends–no one who would sit with me as I die.

    I shall recognize that all these things may not happen and still I may have a good death.

    Each ending brings up every other–blessing and curse.

    I shall stop struggling, let life and death take their course.

Not a bad way to die or to live a life if you really look at it. Which, of course, is what most of us discovered.

What I Want To Say When I Am Dead by Jerry Muhlenburg

      Do not think that I am here in this box,
      But know that I am here.
      The river is here, and the earth.
      The sun rose today right on time,
      As it will tomorrow,
      As it did all my days.

      I am here because you are here.
      All my ancestors and all my children
      And their children
      And all my relations living and dead are here.
      We didn’t plan it this way
      But it happened anyway, thanks be to God.

      Do not think that my life was special
      But know that it was amazing.
      My friend used to say to anyone –
      Whether they cared to listen or not –
      Just to be is blessing,
      Just to live is holy.

      Do not think that death has meaning.
      Only life has meaning,
      And only love can provide it.
      The rest is foolishness and vanity.
      Know love and let go of thinking.
      Let go of thinking and know only love.

      Do not think there is more to do.
      There is always more to do
      But every life is a good one
      Whether long or short.
      Judgment has no place
      Because the evidence is always insufficient.

      Everything is related to everything else
      In a web so complex
      That causality cannot be assigned.
      It goes all the way back.
      Know only that this moment
      Is all the time there is.

      Do not think we are separated.
      We are one – always were, always will be –
      Whether we know it or not.
      Let yourself know that joy
      Is the natural state of the spirit.
      It’s where I’ve been and where I’ve gone.

    By the way….we took a “Death Anxiety Assessment” which had been developed by psychologists at the beginning and end of the course. Most, including me, found that their anxiety was meaningfully reduced.

    So far I have enough interest for the course to be repeated in the fall in Rockland County, NY and in New York City. If there are more adventurers among you, hospice workers or no, there is still time to contemplate your own death through planning. It seems very likely that working on our own death will allow us to face what we experience in work with others with greater heart. At the very least it will guide the ones that care for us when our wishes need to be known.

    Jeanne Denney is a therapist and hospice worker in Rockland County, NY. She directs the Rockland Institute for Mind/Body Education and Kairos, an organization for helping professionals.

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13 Responses to “Hospice Workers (and others) Meet to Contemplate Their Own Death”

  1. fran harmeyer said

    I really liked this. Any way I could look at that Death Anxiety Assessment?

  2. Mark Brady said

    Jeanne, congratulations on getting these “adventurers of spirit” together for six weeks. It’s not easy to sell the benefits of conscious dying to the living. And yet, anyone who has worked in this field or been exposed at the edges, knows there are potentially huge benefits to accrue to those of us whose time is “someday” approaching. May you continue to be blessed in this work. ~ Mark

  3. Susan O' said

    Jeanne,
    Great article and contribution. Thank you for sharing the benefits and experience of the course you offered.
    Wish I could be there for the fall class, but I am going to try to lovingly twist your arm and receive it online from you.
    Susan

  4. Thanks for sharing this meaningful post.
    I serve as a volunteer and certified teacher with the http://www.dyingconsciously.org international hospice. This is part of our personal training, and a process we do with our hospice clients, their friends, family, caregivers and any interested persons. It is a terrific anxiety reducer, and a demystification of an uncomfortable topic in our culture. Not only does this work make crossing over more comfortable for all involved, it enhances the lives of us who are not currently undergoing that shift! I am seeing greater joy, greater appreciation for the gift of daily life, reduced daily anxiety and a general joie de vivre.
    This work is definitely creating a huge ripple effect, that can do wonders for society.
    Blessings and appreciation for your excellent work! We are all in this together!
    Kitty Norris

    • Hi Kitty, thank you for your sharing. What a great organization that is! Much after my own heart. I am always looking for kindred spirits, and I will enjoy reading more about this work. I hope to stay in touch. We certainly are all in this together.

      Blessings,

      Jeanne

  5. Great article!
    I would also like to look at the death anxiety assessment.

    As a veteran hospice worker (20+ years) it dawned on me through Ernst Becker’s work that the reason many if not most of us do this work is some sort of position that says, ‘I’m sort of immunized from death because I do this work’. It’s not rational nor is it even conscious, but I think it’s there.

    Thanks for this good work–

    • Hi Beth, thanks for the comment. I will forward the death assessment to you, and yes it seems likely to me that we often feel we have some kind of leverage on the fear by being its “helper”, or staying in its proximity. Hope to hear from you again.

      Jeanne

      • Joan Grant said

        Thank you for sharing. We seem to be just beginning in some ways and yet we seem to think we are helping others.
        I too would like to see the death assessment. And appreciate your willingness to share.
        Joan

  6. Joan said

    Would love to know when you are doing this again. Was just thinking about how I can sit with a dying person and be at peace yet wonder what I need to do to find that peace if I were the dying person.

    What a gift to present this workshop/webinar.

  7. Betsy Kammerud said

    Hi Jeanne. I have been attempting to find the Death Anxiety Assessment and have not had much luck. Can you point me in the right direction? Thank you for such a wonderful post.

    • Hi Betsy,

      Lots of requests for that. Happy to share. I will send it to your email. It is actually called the Death Anxiety Scale and was created by Donald Templar and revised by James Thorson and F.C. Powell. Personally, I don’t like it so well. It did not touch on my own anxieties and seems to leave a lot out. But this one has been developed and tested by psychologists.

      • Liz Gleason said

        Jeanne,
        I believe that by coming to peace with my own death, I will be at peace with my mothers death six years ago. I hope for that to be the result. Where does one begin?

      • What a beautiful question. I think you have already begun it. I think it is also great to connect to support from others around this. Stephen Levine has a book called “A Year to Live” that helps people take on a deep contemplation of the scenario and there are groups that have sprung up to work on his book together. I hope to have the course I put together to help people through the questions. “Planning on Dying” online one of these months. I will try to remember to let you know about it. If you email me more about your interest I can also share more resources. jdenney@email.com. Best of luck. Fear Not.

        Jeanne

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