How I Hid While My Grandmother Died

Watching my Grandmother lose her battle to cancer made me feel helpless. We knew her passing was near, and while many of my family members sat with her, held her hand, talked to her, said their tearful good byes - I busied myself.

I created posters for her memorial, I organized photographs, I did anything I could at the hospice home to distract myself from what was happening. It was hard to reconcile what I was seeing - a woman who was once feisty, independent, full of humor and wouldn't stand for any BS - fighting hard at the end of her life, and losing. I flew thousands of miles to be with her, and I waited in the next room as she passed. I let my fear dictate the experience.

Reading Joan's book gave me a sense of peace and comfort about that day, something I had pushed out of my mind for a decade. It was cathartic to remember and work through those emotions, the fear and sadness of losing her. Of watching my mom lose her mother.

I don't know if I will ever ready to be with someone at their life's end, but when it happens again I will be less fearful. I will avoid less and experience more.

Soul Support Community

We all know we will die, but few of us are willing to face that reality. It’s as if we’re trying to keep death and dying secret. Sometimes we have a story we need to tell about a dying, or a question we need to ask about aspects of the dying process, and we have nowhere to turn. I was 12 when I first learned about how many people fear death. Cheryl, a kid I’d just met at summer camp, whispered, “Do you know just about every kid here has a broken family?” “Yeah, I know,” I said. “My mom died when I was 3.” Cheryl’s face twisted. “Both my parents are alive,” she said as she backed away. She had questions, but she was afraid to ask. At that moment, I knew she was now scared of me, and we would never be friends. That happened again, many times.

Dying people are often hidden in hospitals and nursing homes. Therefore, many of us are unfamiliar with the psychological and spiritual aspects of the dying process, so dying people and their families and friends often do not receive the emotional and spiritual support they need. I know I didn’t. It’s time for this to change. 

Losing my mother as a young child put the reality of death front and center in my life. The questions came -- and I spent a lifetime searching for answers. Learning how to support dying people and those they love has been one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I want to share that learning with you. For six years, I was the chaplain on the palliative care team at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC, meaning I worked with patients with life-threatening illnesses, some of whom were dying.

This work inspired a book about what I witnessed (Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life’s End) which is a collection of real stories of my patients’ final days and what they taught me about dying. As I have traveled the country sharing my experience in lectures and workshops, again and again people tell me about the dying of loved ones, saying, “I have had nobody to share this with.” They tell me of things that happened which worried or frightened them. Most of these things were common experiences, but to those unfamiliar with what happens during the dying process, they can be frightening and overwhelming.

Hearing these experiences and the pain they caused inspired me. I have created a safe space where you can ask a question about an emotional and spiritual aspect of the dying process, share your story of a dying you attended, and connect with others who have shared their questions and experiences with the loss of a loved one. Please join the Soul Support Community to ask a question or tell your story.

You are not alone in this. Your story and experience matter.

Peace to you from Chaplain Joan Maxwell

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Shalem Institute Talk

The Reverend Dr. Tilden Edwards of the Shalem Institute delivers stirring and heartfelt remarks in recognition of Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life’s End. He succinctly addresses the practical ways Joan Maxwell’s work helps loved ones be more present for their friends and family as they approach the end of life.