I've Been There For Hundreds Of Dying People — Here's What I've Learned

Photo: Courtesy Of Erin Coriell.
Over the past six years, I have watched hundreds of people transition from life to death ­— sitting with them in hospice care or in the comfort of their own homes as they sometimes peacefully, sometimes painfully, drew their last breaths. This was my commitment as a hospice volunteer: to support as many individuals as I could in the dying process. This role is becoming increasingly popular as society lifts the veil of silence that surrounds death.

My path to this calling was unexpected. When I met Coop a little over a decade ago, I was 18, fresh out of high school, and eager to explore what early adulthood was like. I didn’t know then that the redheaded flight attendant and comedian would become my first love — and my first great loss. Our first date began with a disclosure. “I have stage-four lung cancer and it is likely terminal,” she told me. Mesmerized by her presence, I decided to overlook that minor detail. Her fiery hair was intact, she laughed like a courageous hyena, and she was spunkier than anyone I had ever met. I told myself that she was going to be just fine.
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We proceeded to get to know one another, though we did things slightly differently than the norm. Instead of going to the movies, we watched movies in the chemotherapy wing of the hospital. Our sleepovers were often spent cuddled up on a hospital bed; we proved two people could fit. Aside from the needles and nausea, we were just two people falling in love.
Frightened by the situation, friends would ask, “How can you do this, fall in love with someone who is dying?” My response was unrehearsed and rather simple: “We don’t choose who we fall in love with. It just happens.”

It definitely happened.

Aside from the needles and nausea, we were just two people falling in love.

As I became well-versed in cancer lingo, I slowly morphed into the caregiver for a declining middle-aged woman — who was also my lover. From a radical acceptance of the situation on a Monday to kicking and screaming resistance that Wednesday, we rode the emotional end-of-life roller coaster together. Coop’s wild ride in this life ended on December 7, 2008. My heart broke that day: the day I began my solo ride.

Weighed down and often immobile in a deep pit of grief, my raw heart ached for her return. I was clueless about loss, but I managed to reach out to a local hospice that guided me to their bereavement team. A very caring social worker and chaplain showed up at my door just a few days later. She offered a presence that I was desperately hungry for. The most important gift she gave me, however, was her willingness to listen. I have come to understand now that listening is the most powerful gift you can offer someone who is grieving. Most people feel like they have to fill the space with words, but open space is what gives the other person permission for grief, praise, and healing.

During our meeting that day, the social worker planted a seed. “I don’t normally say this to people who are in your position,” I recall her telling me, “but I feel that once you have healed some, you may consider involving yourself in hospice.” I barely heard her at the time, but after a while, I returned to her words again and again.

Two years after Coop’s death, I found myself volunteering for a hospice organization. A patient I saw frequently brought me an immense amount of healing. Her name was Leslie, also the name of my mother. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and 48 years old, Leslie was actively dying with no family or friends to support her. I will never forget the day I went into her room, expecting to see her frail in bed, when to my surprise, she jumped up, turned the radio on, and danced all around the room. Although she was dying, her spirit soared. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Though someone may be dying, their soul remains whole.
Photo: Courtesy Of Erin Coriell.
I was blessed with the gift of being with her just moments before she died. I watched the thrombosis in her neck and massaged her feet, which were slowly losing circulation. Most importantly, I let her know that it was safe to let go.

About a year later, my best friend, Sreeja, took her own life. Grief pierced my heart once again and a lot of my old wounds reopened. It was a pivotal point in my life — the moment I made a choice that would change its course. I realized that Sreeja, Coop, and Leslie were catalysts in my life, pushing me to get as intimate as possible with love, spirituality, and death. After Sreeja died, instead of fighting death, this time I welcomed it. I invited it in as a guest. I offered it a cup of tea. Stretching my broken heart open, I discovered that my passion and work in this world resides in end-of-life care and advocacy, in helping people understand and embrace their mortality.

When we have the willingness to truly acknowledge death, we open ourselves to become that much closer to life. As an end-of-life advocate, death has become my way of life. I believe it is meant to break us down, because in the rebuilding, we have a critical decision to make: Can we be open enough to allow the loss of loved one or our own mortality to transform us?
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When we have the willingness to truly acknowledge death, we open ourselves to become that much closer to life.

At the end of last year, I established The Conscious Dying Network, an organization that offers retreat-style workshops and an annual summit on topics of conscious dying, aging, caregiving, and grief. We have a network of teachers and end-of-life pioneers and the message at the core of our work is that we will all die. We don’t know exactly how or when, but we can be 100% sure it will happen. The work, then, lies in getting comfortable with that information, working through our fears, and asking what this truth has to offer each of us in our day-to-day living.

Though they were always painful, over time, my reactions to death morphed from anguish to acceptance. Yes, there was still an ache, but it was accompanied with a bittersweet truth: We will all die. My friend Maitreya has a saying, "Good people die, sick people die, healthy people die, bad people die — we will all die." She’s right. None of us know when we will go, and it is this moment-to-moment uncertainty that leads me to follow my current path — of reimagining how we approach death — in whatever moments I do have here.

My intention is to continue bringing awareness and presence to the bedsides of those who are dying and those who are living. We will all take the same grand leap one day. Life and death are not separate, but all part of the same journey — and when we find appreciation for the beautiful gift that is our own mortality, we discover that life can be good again after the loss of a loved one. I am living proof.
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