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This Hospice Worker Has 3 Life Lessons Everyone Should Live By

After staring death in the face every day for years, Dona Reese, Ph.D., learned how to live and stop fearing mortality.

 Photo Credit: Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images 

In the small town of Salisbury, Maryland in 1988, Dona Reese, 35 at the time, saw an ad in her local paper for a hospice social worker job. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, no, that would be so depressing,’” Reese recalls. Ironically, it turned out to be the most uplifting, life-affirming experience of her life, but one she was entirely unprepared for. Not only was she ill-equipped to grapple with end of life care, she didn’t know how to address the many spiritual questions her patients lobbed at her, like, Why is God doing this to me? “The first time I got a spiritual question, I said, ‘Uh, let me call the hospice chaplain,’ but by the time he got there, the patient had died,” Reese says.

After working there for two years and seeing hundreds of patients, she decided she needed to fill the gaps in her knowledge and went on to earn a Ph.D. in social work with an emphasis on hospice care and spirituality. Currently a professor in the School of Social Work at Southern Illinois University and the author of Hospice Social Work, Reese says: “We have a saying in hospice that goes, ‘I learned more from my patients than they ever learned from me.’” Although studies show that hospice caregivers endure tough emotional challenges, their trials and tribulations are also enriching. Reese shares the hard-won lessons she has derived from her experience in the field.

Live Right Now

Living her life in such close proximity to those who were losing theirs, Reese learned to live with a new urgency and depth: “Value today as if it’s your last day. None of us know when it will be our last.” The awareness that their deaths were imminent gave hospice patients an uncanny and profound “appreciation of the current moment,” a quality that Reese says eludes most of us as we grind through our daily lives. As she speaks, I think of one of my favorite lines from 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Carpe diem refrains aren’t new, but bear repeating if only for the hope that they’ll catapult us out of our stupors to seize fast-fleeting time. “To learn to live like you’re dying,” Reese says, volunteer in hospice, “because the social worker grows as much as the patient.”

Take Care of Unfinished Business

Reese says almost every hospice patient she oversaw was overcome by a deep and profound peace that stemmed from a sense of oneness with the universe, but also from resolved conflicts with family members and friends. “They were able to forgive people they needed to forgive, and ask for forgiveness too,” she says. It’s a sad — and ironic — fact of life that death brings the living closer together. “Resolve these issues now,” Reese urges, “rather than waiting until you are at the end of your life.” Indeed, several studies demonstrate the many health benefits of forgiveness — reduced stress and anxiety, decreased risk of heart attacks, improved cholesterol levels and sleep, and more — so ring up that person who let you down and let it go.

Reese also suggests asking yourself: “Does my life, and my suffering, have meaning? Do I have unfinished business? What is my belief system?” Keeping these questions at the forefront of you mind will help keep your priorities on point.

Don’t Fear Death: There Is An Afterlife

When I ask Reese if she believes in a non-material dimension, she quickly replies: “It’s not that I believe it. I know it for sure.” Back in 2001, she conducted a study in response to being overwhelmed by the spiritual calm that overcame hospice patients as they hit the home stretch. She asked 68 patients if they’d ever had a spiritual experience. Half said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” which she took to mean “yes.” The other half were eager to share their stories. “Every single person had a spiritual experience before they died. A loved one would come to get them, often a deceased spouse or parent. Some saw the light,” she says.

Reese defines spirituality as a two-dimensional construct that applies to the religious and non-religious alike. The first, which she calls “the philosophy of life,” grapples with “perspectives, values, and belief systems about cosmology, the purpose of life, the nature of the universe and one’s place in it.” The second, which she calls “unity consciousness,” a phrase coined by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, is about “transcending the individual self to become aware of the unity of all — the totality of the universe and a sense of oneness with God.” That is what Reese says she witnessed at the bedsides of the dying, which she attributes to their awesome sense of peace. “I’m no longer scared to die because I know I won’t be going anywhere by myself,” she says.

In the midst of this meditation on dying and spirituality, a Ryder truck zooms by me on a busy New York City street and a spray of goosebumps travels up my arms. My father-in-law, Martin Weiss, who passed away eight years ago, used to say to my spouse and her younger sister when they were children: “Make a wish girls, there’s a Ryder truck!” I take it as a sign that I should heed Reese’s advice.

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