“Perhaps the best gift of all that has come to me in my hospice work is that I have no fear of dying myself, and I have had numerous opportunities in my life to test this. My fervent hope for this book is that, by reading it, others may find a greater level of comfort in discussing and contemplating death and dying.” — Janet Wehr, RN, author of Peaceful Passages
This month in the Patheos Book Club, we’re talking about a tender new book, Peaceful Passages: A Hospice Nurse’s Stories of Dying Well, by registered nurse Janet Wehr. We spoke to Wehr about her book, her work as a hospice nurse, her views on an afterlife, and what’s she’s learned about dying — and living — in the process.
Peaceful Passages began as a personal journal that I started early in my hospice career and has been ongoing for seventeen years. It began as an outlet for my own emotions and the questions about dying that were welling up inside of me. I realized that, through my journaling, my patients were telling their own stories about life, dying, and death.
I wrote the book for myself and for everyone who has thoughts, questions and feelings about dying, and for those who will walk through that door at some time in their own life journey, or in the journey of helping another. Although each of us will have our own personal experience with dying, just as with any other aspects of life, it would be good to have spent some time contemplating and learning something about the process at hand. My hope was for the book to be a starting point in opening up some of these thoughts and questions, and even conversations with others.
In the introduction to your book, titled “Why Hospice?,” you say that people often ask you if being a hospice nurse is full of sadness, tears, and despair, and why you would want to do it. What is your response to them?
Very early in my career, I was filled with sadness and tears. I knew that I would never have a long-term relationship with any patient or their family, nor was it likely that I would I ever help someone through an illness to restored health. This is because hospice is special care of which the goal is to provide comfort, not a cure. The patients assigned to me would all be terminal; they had either declined treatment for their illness or their treatment wasn’t successful, and they were moving toward their final days.
With experience, though, I began to realize that I could help these patients by focusing on the ability for them to live well until the end of life came for them. This often had more to do with their spiritual and emotional well-being than it did with their physical body because, when the needs of our spiritual and emotional selves are being met, our physical self is put very much at ease. Once these needs were met, in whatever way was needed by a particular patient, the person seemed to shift from “drive” to “cruise control”, and to live in a new and different way, with more focus on ‘how well’ and less focus on ‘how long.’
How long have you been a hospice nurse and how did you choose this field of nursing over others?
I am completing my seventeenth year working as a hospice nurse this year.
My first nursing job was working as a staff nurse in a large long-term care facility, where there are many patients to care for and the daily pace is fast by necessity. Although I loved caring for sick, elderly and disabled patients, I felt that some of the things that I wanted to offer my patients — my time, my touch, my words, my heart — were frequently rushed or postponed due to the many necessary physical tasks that needed to be accomplished.
In my fifth year of nursing, after observing a dedicated hospice nurse who made visits to hospice patients at our facility, I knew immediately that working in hospice was the way I could have the time and the place to engage my entire being with patients who likely needed it the most.
Can you share one of your favorite stories form the book? What do you hope your story conveyed to your readers?
My favorite story from the book is “An Indian Princess.” It was so humbling to be in the presence of another culture during their time of mourning and grief, and to be allowed to enter that sacred circle of family, friends, and neighbors who had come together. There was a sense of the surreal that night: the colors, the scents, the rituals, and for me to be welcomed so quickly into this group during such a personal and emotional time.
I have had other similar experiences with different cultures since that time, but this one stands out to me in its beauty and in the gracious spirit of the people that I encountered there that night.
In all of my stories, it was my hope and my intention to open up a dialogue among people who don’t or can’t comfortably discuss the subject of death. Especially in North America, we tend to push thoughts and conversations about dying away, and turn our needs during this precious time over to professionals who tell us what to think, what to do and how to feel. We can surmount this discomfort if we put it on the table and look at it sometimes. Just like any other area of learning, if we wait until we need it, it’s usually too late to gain a comfort level with it. In writing Peaceful Passages, it was important for me to show that, if we let go of our fear and discomfort, there are beautiful and even wondrous aspects of dying, and joyful experiences, that could otherwise easily be missed.
What have you learned about dying by companioning those who are moving through the last stages of their life?
By journeying with others in their dying process, the most valuable thing I have learned is how to live better in my own life. There really is no time or energy to spare in the short time that we have here–whether it be a shortened life or a lengthy one–on things that don’t enhance our lives and the way we live them. We are each slowly moving toward the end of our life from the moment that we are born into the world. Realizing that the things that hold us back from being all we can truly be — anger, resentment, envy, grudges — and wasting precious days of our lives cultivating these rather than the spirit of wholeness, has been the greatest gift of my life.
And what have you learned about living from being with people who are dying?
From the dying I have learned (am still learning!) to live well in all of the ways one can imagine it. Live happy. Live peacefully. Live healthy. Live surrounded by the things you love, whether that takes the form of nature, art, music, people or places. Live so that you can look back, smile, and say, “It was a good life.”
What is your understanding of what happens after we die? Do you believe in an Afterlife, and what do you imagine that looks like?
I have seen so many examples — and only a sprinkling of them are in Peaceful Passages — of the joy, the amazement, the beauty, and the Light that can, and often does, shine through when a person is moving closer to the time of their death. Some patients talk about it; with other patients, the evidence is seen, heard, or felt in the heart. There is something beautiful, blissful, and joyous that occurs in the moments surrounding dying, but those of us whose time hasn’t yet come can only glimpse it.
My personal belief is in a Higher Power; a benevolent Creator; God. I believe in an Afterlife and I believe that, after we die, we can assist those we love, especially at the time of their transition because I have personally seen and heard this occurring many times in my work as a guide to persons who are dying. I sense Heaven to be more of a state of being than an actual place, and a time of reunion with our Creator. I can only hope, with a lifetime of working on myself, to one day hear those renowned words of praise, “Well, done, good and faithful servant.”
Perhaps the best gift of all that has come to me in my hospice work is that I have no fear of dying myself, and I have had numerous opportunities in my life to test this. My fervent hope for Peaceful Passages is that, by reading it, others may find a greater level of comfort in discussing and contemplating death and dying.
Read more stories from the book, Peaceful Passages, at the Patheos Book Club here.