For over 35 years, I’ve been talking to people about death. I’m often asked “how could you work with the dying?”
My journey on this path began when I was seven. Many family members were dying of heart disease and cancer and I wasn’t allowed to visit them in the hospital or attend the funerals. I can remember my older brother having an accident and I was kept away. I imagined it must be horrific if they wouldn't even let me see him. I became convinced that illness and death were really, really scary.
I tried to conquer my fear of death by fantasizing what it would be like when I was dead but my imagination only confirmed that death is dark, lonely, scary, and empty. My fear intensified as I grew up and manifested as low-grade anxiety. I lived with the fear the best that I could and pursued my undergraduate studies at San Diego State in marketing and sociology. After what one might call a successful career in marketing for large corporations, I started thinking about getting an MBA. In the meantime, I did everything I could to be safe so that death would not touch me–years of wellness, nutritional studies, vegetarianism, yoga, teaching, and spiritual development followed.
I’ve always wanted to volunteer, to give, and to share with others. My path changed when a dear friend was on the board of directors for a hospice in San Diego county and I asked him if they needed volunteers. Is there a question that one should have significance in the life of someone who is dying – you know, if the door is sprung wide open? So, in I went!
My first person I went to serve who died in my arms changed my life forever. I can still feel that moment, years later. Being present to her death was not at all what I imagined. She slipped away in my arms with a gentle exhalation. I wasn’t scared. I wept and held her. Then I wept some more.
There was no turning back at this moment. I was home. My heart and soul had found a path that filled me with an inner peace I hadn’t yet known in my life. I went back to school, but not for an MBA. I received my first masters in counseling psychology so I could become a hospice social worker, and upon graduation started working in the hospice system in Orange County. This deepened my connection to the preciousness of life and I love every day. I listened, learned, cared, and became ever more present to death. My fear of death eased and my life became filled with deep heartfelt gratitude.
In the mid-nineties, hospice came under major scrutiny from Medicare and other governing bodies. They became financially dependent on funding to survive and the medicalization (and monetization) of death began. Unfortunately, this detracted from their original mission of providing a holistic approach to end of life which tugged at my heartstrings as I didn’t believe concerns over money should be part of our last breath. It should be a time to say good-bye, love each other, reconcile our relationships, grieve, and honor death.
I’m a strong advocate for hospice services as I believe they are a necessary part of our current medical model of care, but I also believe we have a system that isn’t addressing many of the needs of those facing the end of life. Hearts, desires, and soul yearnings are being untouched, leaving many of the dying alone, fear laden, shamed, and in an institution in which they may wish not to reside. My deepest vision is that no one dies in unnecessary suffering. I left hospice and continued to do the work that I felt was needed to support those facing the end of life, inclusive of providing compassion, support, education, sanctity, rituals, death with dignity, and love.
My studies advanced to a doctorate degree in mythology and depth psychology. My thesis focused on the cultural, religious, and philosophical practices of death, dying, and beyond. I continued my work as a death doula (someone who cares for the dying, physically, spiritually, and emotionally), advocate, educator, and ordained minister. My practice took me all over the world as I deepened my ability to be present to death. Death is better understood in our psyche and souls when we’re connected to our ancestors in dreams and imagination.
I’ve now held hundreds as they have crossed over the threshold into the unknown. Each person affords me the honor of witnessing a significant piece of the great mystery of this life. The privilege of listening to the echoes of their hearts.
I’ve never charged for my services for those families and loved ones dealing with death. When I’m asked how I can do this work, I answer, “I cannot NOT do this work! The work chose me.” I say this with the deepest of gratitude.
With love from my heart to yours,
Dr. Andrea Deerheart
The HeartWay Executive Director and Founder