When I applied to nursing school, it was with my full intention to become a hospice nurse; I never entertained anything else. I knew with every ounce of my being that I wanted to provide comfort to those at the end of their life. While I knew what I wanted to do and the area of nursing I wanted to focus on, I honestly had no idea what that would entail or whether or not I would find my place. I just knew this was what I was supposed to do.
The reaction I receive when I tell someone what I do is almost always the same. Most people say they could never do this work. Many fill me up with kind words and gratitude, usually because they had their own experience with hospice. Some people check out as soon as I start talking, or change the subject hoping I will too. People are afraid to talk about death, and many are afraid of death itself. I often find myself defending death, hoping to remove the dark cloud that seems to hover around when death is mentioned. I walked into the room of a patient once, someone I had not yet met, and the first thing he said was, “the Grim Reaper is here” and while I laughed and tried to make light of it, I also realized that many people connect with that when death or dying is discussed.
I see a lot of death, I have been at the bedside of many people who have died, and it is painful, emotional, terribly sad most of the time and I can’t count how many times I wish I could change their direction. But what people who only see the dark cloud don’t realize is all the beauty we see, or the way we are constantly reminded how truly amazing life is.
This work has taught me lessons I think we could all benefit from. I get to experience love on so many levels. I have been reminded the value of commitment, honesty, hard work, and friendship from couples who have survived 50+ years together. I have learned about different cultures and faiths that I would never have been exposed to. I see kindness and compassion that blows my mind. I have seen volunteers sit at the bedside of someone they have never met, for hours, simply to ensure that no one dies alone. I have watched as the team of people I work with give of themselves so unselfishly making sure that someone else feels safe and supported. All of this reminds me to appreciate life in a way I honestly don’t think I would have if it were not for what I do.
A very common thread throughout my blogs is the reminder of how permanent death is. Because I am sitting in the very front row of death, I am reminded of the power it has to completely hush a room. But up until that point, we have life. The length of time we have is usually kept from us, so with that in mind I am also reminded to live my life fully and with a bit of child-like enthusiasm for as long as I possibly can.
In my first book Soft Landing, I shared a story about a woman who had spent her last year in bed. Days before she died she asked me to take her outside to see the sky. We bundled her up in a wheelchair, and we walked her out the door and down the block. She stared up at the sky and looked around at the trees and the flowers, feeling the wind on her face and she smiled. She said, “I don’t think people realize how lucky they are to have all of this”. She breathed it all in and I knew it was the last time she would do this, and I knew she knew that as well.
I am reminded every single day how unpredictable our lives can be. The only thing we can be absolutely certain of is right this minute. So for right this minute we need to stop and stare at the sky and breathe in all of its glory. I am reminded how lucky I am to have my family, my friendships, and all of my blessings. Blessings are not the things we own; our blessings are Mother Nature, our cultures, our faith, our unique differences, our relationships and being alive to appreciate it all. I am grateful to have so many blessings, and I am thankful to have a life that has been gifted so much magic and wonder. Don't take life for granted.
Photo credit: My friend Debra Montalbano