“I provide hospice grief support.” This reply is one of the easiest ways to make a conversation awkward when meeting new people. Death and dying, grief and grieving – my job is all the things most people do not like to think about, let alone discuss at a dinner party. Many people respond with a look of discomfort or pity, and say something like, “That must be so hard.” or “I could never to that work.” or simply “I’m sorry.” And when I reply that I actually like my job, the conversation can feel even weirder.
The picture featured in this post is a candid photo taken by a dear colleague at our annual patient memorial. I love this photo because the joy I feel for my work shows.
Hospice is probably one of the most misunderstood professions. Because our daily work is not primarily about dying; it is about helping people live as well as possible until their final breath. The philosophy of hospice care is to care for the whole person for the purpose of alleviating pain – physical, emotional, and spiritual. As well as to honor the dignity and uphold the value of every life regardless of the decline of one’s body or mind in the final chapter of their story.
Good hospice care offers a bookend that mirrors the beginning of life. When life enters this world, families and friends gather to celebrate the birth of a beloved baby and the value of that child in this world. Death provides a similar opportunity for loved ones to gather around a life that is departing and once again to honor the countless ways that life matters.
As a hospice Bereavement Coordinator, my job is to support our patient’s loved ones after the patient dies. Helping grieving people is heavy work. I certainly have conversations that are just sad and hard. And on occasion I need to close my eyes and take a few deep breaths before going on with my day. But my role isn’t just about the sorrow of loss. It is also listening to people stories. An elderly widower telling me how he met and fell in love with his wife, a grieving daughter telling me about her mother’s courage and fierce love. A caregiver telling me about the jokes a patient would tell to make her laugh when she was having a hard day. Most days I leave work feeling truly inspired by the stories people have lived and the love that is shared.
My job is not to fix or heal people. My job is to witness people’s grief and to offer a non-judgmental space where they can feel, process, and express their thoughts and emotions. I am a guide for people on their grief journey but I lead from behind. Everyone’s grief experience is unique, and so I can never begin a bereavement conversation with a plan of how I’m going to help. Good bereavement care always starts with good listening. Actively listening to someone’s story for as long as they need to share it. And then offering education, tools, or interventions in response what has been said.
I am good at my job, and I find the work deeply satisfying. Not because it is always enjoyable but rather because it is meaningful. I also work with people who are fun, and we laugh together often. I am not sure if melancholy people are a great long term fit for end of life care. It does help to have an optimistic outlook on life if you are going to make hospice your career.
Prior to beginning my experience in hospice, I hosted weekly community dinners for young adults who were recent college graduates. For 10 years several young women joined my family for dinner every Monday, and young men gathered around my table every Thursday. The purpose of these meals was not to entertain guests over an impressive meal, but rather to share life authentically around the table.
This routine engagement in meaningful conversations with post graduates is where I learned foundational skills for supporting grievers. The importance of an invitation to come to the table even when you aren’t your best self. The value of simply being present in a season of uncertainty. How to offer guidance rather than direction during a time of great transition. Using reflective listening as a tool for aiding someone creating a new identity. Discovering a renewed sense of purpose when your whole world has changed.
My first day as a hospice Bereavement Coordinator was spent reading a thick orientation binder. For the most part, it was a long day. But I’ll never forget learning that hospice and hospitality share the same Latin root of “Hospes”. In a moment of great wonder I realized that beginning a career in hospice at the midpoint of my life is not a new path. It is a continuation of the road I have been traveling for decades.
Hospes is a word with a diametric meaning of both host and visitor. It is also defined as one who provides hospitable provision for the needs and wants of travelers and guests. Life is a shared journey where all of us experience invitations to be a host, a visitor, or a guest. Together my experiences as a hospice care provider and the continued rhythm of hospitality around my dining room table are teaching me how to live a meaningful life. This site is a place where I get to explore what I’m learning from both practices with all of you.
I’m so glad that you’re here.