Sitting at the Bedside: There’s no Right Way to Die

As a new hospice volunteer I was uncertain what to expect. The psychological process of sudden deaths was familiar to me as the director of a victim’s services program, but sitting with families who’s loved ones were dying over weeks and months was new and daunting.

My first case was a woman in her late forties dying of ovarian cancer. Her children moved in to provide care, her grandchildren played quiet games at the foot of her bed, a wide circles of friends and coworkers cooked, cleaned, offered rituals, dropped off insightful books, and sat with her around the clock. As I integrated into this family system I was inundated with stories of Zana’s generous, love-filled life. From her outstanding career (a social worker who tackled the toughest cases) to her mentorship of women (she led book discussions, spiritual groups, and supper clubs), Zana was an inspiration.

One early morning I sat next to Zana as she got some rest. It was the first quiet moment I’d experienced since coming into her life, and I began to feel like hospice volunteering was manageable. “Amy, I need to tell you something,” she whispered. “Of course,” I said. I was expecting one of Zana’s speeches on the beauty of transitioning, the hope and excitement for what was next, or gratefulness for her life journey. “Amy, this is the worst f***ing experience I’ve ever had in my life. I just want it to be done. I hate all these people being here. I hate the ceremonies. I hate the food and the family and my grandkids. I f***ing hate all of it. Why have I not died yet?” I literally stopped breathing.

In that raw, aching moment, Zana taught me a profound truth: honesty in death is as important as honesty in life. She and her support system were trying so hard to help her die in a “healthy spiritual way” that Zana’s actual experience was completely overlooked. In-between meaningful ceremonies, Zana and I started to have short whispered conversations about her rage. Her ability to deeply engage with her own emotions shaped me and allowed me to sit with all sorts of families after her, trusting in their process.