A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
"I work in a home hospice program. People join hospice when they're within the last couple seasons of life, when the doctors have said, 'We've done as good as we can do, and we can't fix the underlying illness, but we can help you and your family be as comfortable as possible.' I see four to five families a day, traveling up to 45 miles between visits. When someone dies, if we're not there before the person's death, we arrive within 45 minutes to an hour.
"Don't be fooled by a person's beliefs about what dying might be like for them. Because people are not always the best predictors of their own path when the rubber hits the road. Whether this person is from a faith background or not, or whether this person has a loving family and this person is doing it solo—those kinds of things just don't seem to be a great predictor.
"Hollywood likes to show dying people being at peace, having a tearful apology with a loved one, and then drifting into the ether. What I've noticed is that people die like they've lived. Some people hang on with tenacity and vigor when you see just the weakest of bodies, but their spirit hangs on for every breath. And that's how they've lived their life.
"I do find that the people from strong faith traditions, mostly the Christian tradition, struggle when they aren't placidly accepting their death, because they believe that their faith has told them that they should be able to accept it. Well, Jesus was not too thrilled the night before he was going to die. Death is going to affect us all, and however we experience it, it's OK.
"We call it the 'understood secret' when everybody in the family wants to talk with the social worker or the chaplain about death and dying, but nobody wants to do it together. Husbands say, 'You can't talk about that with my wife,' or parents say, 'You can't talk about that with my child,' but they're all talking about it in their silos.
"If I'm completely overwhelmed by each person's story, then I can't help the next person. And if I never feel that, then I probably haven't been helping people, and it's time to take a break and go square dancing. I have a goddaughter who's six years old—her name is Jaylen—and there are times I come home from work and call her mom and say, 'OK, I need some time with her, I need to recharge, nothing else is gonna do it.'
"Sometimes our role is to be the person that you're just pissed off with. You can't fix the cancer. You can't fix Mom's dementia. But you can slam the door in my face. It's easy for me to say, 'You've got bigger things going on, and it's OK for you to be angry with me. I've got big shoulders.' I go home and hug my goddaughter and snuggle with my husband, Jim, and relax, and it's OK."