Discussing Death

By Sarah Miller

When people hear that I’m a hospice chaplain, they often say “OH that sounds so hard!” or they immediately tell me their death story. Most people have a story about someone in their life who has passed away. After telling me their story, they thank me for listening and for being curious about their loss. People LOVE to share their experience.

Our culture prefers to talk about newborn babies and new life but not so much about end of life care and death. I lecture on death and dying at Baylor University and have noticed that even college students have often been connected to someone who has died or have walked with a friend who has lost a loved one. I think it is important for stories to be heard.

Since getting people to talk about death before a crisis happens is one of my interests, I decided to offer two events to the Waco community this summer. In May, I hosted a Death Café at the Good Neighbor House. Death Café was starting in England by a man named Jon Underwood. He wanted to create a space where people, often strangers, would get together to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. The objective of Death Café is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping others make the most of their finite lives.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I invited anyone interested to show up, eat cake, and talk about death with me. I was delighted by this gathering of kind, curious Wacoans who arrived ready to talk about all things death. A death positive Waco facebook group was created after this event and has sparked some great conversations.

In August, another chaplain and I hosted a Death Over Dinner (again at the Good Neighbor House). The concept is quite incredible. Guests meet for dinner and talk about end of life issues. The organization recommends listening, reading, and watching various stories or articles before the dinner and offers questions to guide the evening.  I enjoyed getting to hear from people from a variety of backgrounds and hear what is meaningful to them. More death related events will be planned in the upcoming months. I would love for more Wacoans to tell their stories and also to ask questions and process death topics in safe spaces.

Due to the nature of my job, I’m asked the same questions over and over so thought the blog readers might have interest in my answers. The most popular question is this: How can you work with dying people and grieving families and not get burned out? Compassion fatigue is a real thing! I do a few things to prevent burn out. I do at least 3-4 yoga classes per week. Making my body and breath work together in a yoga class helps tremendously with stress relief. I also spend time with my husband, adorable son, and lots of friends. I’m an extrovert so need to have intentional, fun space with people who are life-giving to me. I also journal after a hard day and use my coworkers to process grief when a favorite patient dies or if I’m feeling particularly sad. Another question I get asked often is what books or websites do I recommend. I think everyone should read Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. The websites I use frequently are: www.theconversationproject.org, www.agingwithdignity.org, www.caringinfo.org, www.compassionandchoices.org, www.griefshare.org.

Talking about death and end of life care can be a little scary initially but I recommend families and friends do this when possible. It is much better to know in advance what your loved ones want. If anyone wants more information on upcoming death-related events, please go to Death Positive Waco on Facebook.

Sarah Miller has lived in Waco for the past fifteen years and is a chaplain with SouthernCare Hospice. She loves encouraging patients and families at the end of life. She can be found most nights doing yoga at the Yoga Pod or hanging out with her husband and delightful five year old.

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