Living Into Dying, Part II

Posted by Eliza, September 17th, 2014

In the dog park one morning, I explained my ministry to a gentle new friend. “So our team supports natural death, where that is an option,” I told her, excited by my new job (as a pet hospice chaplain) and what it offered pets and their people.

“What!” she responded, horrified. “I’d euthanize my dog immediately if she were in any pain.” Puzzled and shocked by her vehemence, I wasn’t sure what to say. After a few moments, she explained that her parents had both died painful deaths from cancer, and her conviction that a timely death with dignity would have been a far more humane way for them to end their lives.

Though I was curious, I didn’t ask her about how their pain was managed (palliative care) – her suffering in remembering was too great. I told her how sorry I was that she’d lost her parents, and that they suffered so. I could understand, now, why she’d responded to the idea of a natural death the way she had.

What I’d say today is that palliative care has come a long way, as have medical professionals, in their understanding of how timely home care combined with careful attention to palliative care can help extend a meaningful life. With effective hospice care, the goal is for hours, days, sometimes months, to bring joy in one another’s company, favorite things – places, foods, games, friends – words of understanding and love, and, finally, saying good-bye.

I know some people think my work is morbid, or they don’t want to think about it at all. Given that all living beings die, we need to think about the fact that we can choose how to approach life, how to live fully and meaningfully, how to take fullest advantage of what we have.

Witnessing a rich, full ending of life – the embrace of those last days together rather than wasting them in anger, regret or bitterness- is what inspires me, balancing the sadness and grief that accompanies this work. There’s nothing new in this -Joan Rivers said as much to her daughter when she was preparing for surgery.

Living gratefully within the moments we’re given graces our life and the lives of those around us. How we approach the fact that life ends determines how fully we’ll live the days we have.
The day ends in beauty.


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Living Into Dying, Part I

Posted by Eliza, January 30th, 2014

Hospice care. End-of-life care. Death row. For many of us these phrases mean the same thing, and that’s a thing we don’t want to think about. The end – no reprieves, second chances, or pardons. Happily, the opposite is true: in most cases hospice offers the beginning of a fulfilling ending, opens the heart to second chances, and, sometimes surprises with reprieves. (An example is given below.)


This quote sums up what I have seen a well-trained, trusted hospice team prevent individuals and families from suffering after the death of a beloved:

“I held a moment in my hand, brilliant as a star, fragile as a flower, a tiny sliver of one hour. I dropped it carelessly, Ah! I didn’t know, I held opportunity.
– Hazel Lee, WW II pilot and pioneer

How do we find opportunities to live more fully within the dying process? As in any new experience, there’s a trust curve, a learning curve and then a settling into practice. When a team I work with, the New England Pet Hospice and Home Care director and vet tech, first visit, they spend the time needed to get to know you; they understand your family’s need to gain a sense of who they are and how they might best support you.

Their first goal is try to relieve physical suffering of the patient because we can’t live, we can’t wonder at the star in our very hand, when we are crushed by pain. One reason NEPHHC does home visits is to avoid further  physical and psychic stress to the patient – and to loved ones- that a visit to the clinic or hospital adds.

Once pain can be controlled, in consultation with your chosen veterinarian, the hospice team listens for any emotional stress preventing the family from fully engaging with the patient and one another. A trained social worker, clergy member, or counselor listens and may reflection back concerns that may need to be shared, negotiated, better heard. The goal is to work together to help heal conflicts or misunderstandings, clarify goals, and sort out the realistic from the not-so-realistic expectations.

Our number one goal is to help each individual and family find their way to make the most of the precious time they have together. Sharing stories, making new memories, and making amends, if needed, are all opportunities to engage fully with one another, to live in spite of the mortal fact of physical life’s ending.

My role, as spiritual advisor, is to support making meaning of this death – each one unique.  I listen to fears, I walk through the dark valleys with patients and their beloveds, and we also work together to find or create rituals or ceremonies that speak to and of that special life and love.  And then I serve as a companion in the grieving that comes with deep loss.

With the bold and vital aviator Hazel Lee, I agree that opportunities for living open up – even in the process of dying: forgiveness of self and others, new appreciation and gratitude for all that you’ve shared, and – sometimes – more time than was expected.  One of our patients, an elderly cat with renal issues, was expected to live for six weeks; with home hospice care, the cat graduated out of hospice three months later and into home care. This amazing and beloved animal enjoys life with her owner nearly two years later.

So don’t drop the flower, the star, your last brilliant moments together thoughtlessly – seize opportunities for palliative care, for communication with those trained to listen and to help, for spiritual care, and above all for enjoying whatever time we are given.



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