Learning to Be With the Dying

We live in a death-denying culture making it difficult to talk about death, to know how to be, and what to say, in the presence of the dying. My mother’s hospice team in Maryland were my first teachers not only about dying, but as it happens, about living too.

I found all of my interactions with the team quite remarkable and unlike anything I encountered with medical and nursing home staff during that period of her life. Only later did I realize I was responding to the quality of their presence—being grounded in the moment, open to whatever happened and completely authentic in their responses.

That quality of presence is the thread I followed from my mother’s death, to volunteering with Hospicare in direct patient care and sitting vigil, and more recently, to completing the Contemplative End-of-Life Care (CEOLC) Certificate Program for health care professionals and hospice volunteers.

The program integrates the spiritual dimension of dying and death with the practical aspects of hospice and palliative care. The instructional methods included individual study, online interaction with other students and instructors, an 8-day residential retreat, a daily contemplative practice, self-reflection and journaling.

We built skills for communicating about dying and death; helping patients find new meaning; facilitating the process of resolving unfinished business; and supporting the bereaved. We explored different cultural attitudes, religious beliefs and practices about dying and death. We examined our own attitudes about death and explored ways to prevent burnout.

At the heart of the program is the cultivation of compassionate presence—referring to how we are when providing care—being in the present moment fully attentive, receptive and responsive to patients and their families.

“Extending our compassionate presence to a fellow human being is a simple act. There is nothing special about it. It requires a willingness to be aware, open and loving. This is not always easy. We are required to drop our habitual ways of doing things and any agendas we may have… We may think that we can do “compassionate presence” by assuming the right outer appearance, … The truth is, we cannot do “compassionate presence”, we can only be compassionate presence.”

—Kirsten DeLeo, CEOLC Instructor

The course took me on an incredible personal journey and provided a very useful set of skills to integrate into my work as a hospice volunteer. It also reminded me of the importance and value of being fully present in the moment, the need to be comfortable with silence, and the power of truly listening not only when we attend the dying, but at all moments and in all situations.

Angela Mennitto is a Hospicare patient-care volunteer. This article about her experience previously appeared in our e-newsletter.