I spoke with a hospice nurse about death. Here are the takeaways

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I’ve never seen someone die, but there are people living in our city that see death every single day. These are the men and women who work in our city’s hospice care.

It’s fascinating to think that as you and I head to work to sit at a desk and answer emails, there are others who are heading to work to help people die.

What is it like to work in hospice? What can they teach us about life and death? I was fortunate enough to sit down and interview a real-life hospice nurse and get the answers to these questions and more.

By the way, due to the sensitivity of the topic, she chose to remain anonymous.

Here’s our conversation:

Let’s start with an easy one. What exactly is hospice?

Hospice walks with the patient and family and honors the patient’s wishes as they take their final journey in life to death.

We are a team consisting of nurses, certified nursing assistants, social workers, chaplains, hospice doctors and volunteers.

What do people say before they die? Is there a common theme?

Normally a patient will go into a sleep state that can last for a couple of days before death. Prior to this I often hear, “I need to go.” When asked, “Where?” they say, “Home.”

But, of course, they’re not referring to their earthly home.

Have you ever had a hospice patient make a full recovery?

We do “graduate” patients as they do improve and no longer qualify for hospice services. That’s always a joyous moment.

I had one patient we graduated and when I saw him three years later, I learned that he was cancer free!

Do you ever cry when someone passes away?

Yes, especially if I have connected with a patient on an emotional level and invested a lot of time with them.

As hospice nurses, we have to set emotional boundaries. But there are those patients that grab at your heart strings. I hope that as a hospice nurse, I will always be able to enter into a family’s pain with empathy even if that means I may shed a few tears now and then.

I always hear stories about animals that know someone is going to die so they go and lay with them. Have you ever experienced this?

Definitely! Animals are amazingly sensitive. I’ve even had to step over a protective pet pig to get to a patient!

I will never forget a gentleman who had three large dogs. When I was called out to the home, the family put the dogs outside. The man was taking his last breaths and I could hear the dogs whining outside. I asked that the dogs be let in and they immediately ran to his bed. One even came and put his head on the man’s hand. After the man passed this dog stayed by his bedside. It was incredible, I really got the sense that this dog was grieving.

Do you realize that every story you’re telling sounds like it’s straight out of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul?

Yes.

What advice can you give to family members of someone placed in hospice?

Be honest with their questions; the patient can feel their body declining.

By being honest with questions such as, “Am I dying?” or “What is happening to me?” you can grieve together. Once you get the elephant out of the room, as difficult as that may be, you can focus on the time that you have left with your loved one.

What have you learned about life after dealing with so much death?

Life is precious and death is unavoidable.

I learned quickly that having material things is nice, but these aren’t what comforts us at end of life.

Being at peace spiritually is also important. I have seen patients whose lives have been bound by regret and their final days are not peaceful ones.

The saying is true, “People die how they live.”

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Mary Gross
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My name is Mary Gross and I am a copywriter, a craps player and an excellent napper.