My Story

My Story

January 7, 2021
Dr. Andrea Deerheart, PhD, ELP

My journey began when I was 7 years old! I was so desperately afraid of death at such a ripe young age. Many family members were dying all around me of heart disease and cancer. I was not allowed to see them in the hospital or attend the funerals. I can remember my older brother having an accident and I was not allowed to see him. I wept. I was frightened and ached to see him.. I imagined it must be horrific if they wouldn't even let me see him..  I loved my brother so much. My fear clutched me deeper as I was convinced now that illness and death were really really scary. I can’t even go see it!

One day shortly after my brother was in the hospital, I tried to conquer my fear of death!  I tried to hide under my covers. I could not bear to die alone so I took my trusty companion Queenie with me. ( my puppy) I tried to imagine what it would be like when I was dead. I didn’t want to go alone! My imagination said death is dark, lonely, scary, and empty. I tried to die under the covers!  Maybe I lasted 30 seconds and threw the covers off my head in relief I was alive. I was probably suffocating as well!  Too scared to understand at this point of my life!!!  I could not go there! My fear did not die!

My fear continued to intensify as I grew up!  It manifested as a low-grade anxiety. I was just fearful! I did everything I could to be safe—so that death would not touch me! This inspired 40 years of wellness, nutritional studies, vegetarianism, yoga, teaching, and spiritual development! I lived with this fear the best that I could till after my undergraduate studies at San Diego State in Marketing and Sociology (1982).  In these days, no one uttered a word about death!  It was easy to hide my fear among all the fear around me! So I hid my fear!  Or I tried to run from it!  I could not run!!!

After what one might call a successful career in Marketing for large corporations. I returned to my roots in California from Boston to seek my MBA.  Giggle, I was going to show those institutions that you could manage with a heart!!!! (The HeartWay’s induction).  I began studying for my entrance exams.

In the meantime, I had the time to be in service!  I had always wanted to volunteer, to give, and to share with others.  A deer friend was on a Board of Directors for a Hospice in San Diego County. I ask him if they needed volunteers.  Brave beyond words, I dove directly into the fire! I have that personality. Face your fears even when the tears and terror take your breath away!  There is freedom from the journey through!

My first patient/client died in my arms and changed my life forever.  (Forgive me, as I cannot call a dying person a patient—we are so much more than a medicalized being).

The moment of her death, I can still feel 30 years later, my life changed! Death was not at all what I imagined!  I was not scared. She slipped away in my arms with a gentle exhalation. I wept and held her! Then I wept more!


Finding my Path

There was no turning back at this moment! I was home!  My heart and soul found a path that filled me with an inner peace I had not yet known in my life! I did go back to school but not for my MBA.  I received my first masters in Counseling Psychology so I could become a Hospice Social Worker.  Upon graduation I became a Hospice Social Worker in Orange County.  The work deepened my connection to the preciousness of life and love everyday. I listened, learned, cared, and became present to death! My fear eased and my life became filled with deep heartfelt gratitude.

In the mid-nineties, Hospice began to be under major scrutiny from Medicare and other governing bodies. At this point, Hospice sold its soul to Medicare from my vantage point. They became financially dependent on funding to survive and strayed from their original mission of providing a holistic approach to end of life.  This tugs my heartstrings!  I do not believe money should be part of our last breath! This is a time to say good-bye, love each other, reconcile our relationships, grieve, and honor death.  I have never charged for services for those families and loved ones dealing with death.

Unfortunately, at this point Hospice began to loss heart and soul in their services.  The medicalization of Death began in full force. Please know that I am a strong advocate for Hospice Services as they are a necessary part of our current medical model of care—.I also believe we are not 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,  they may wish not to reside.  My deepest vision is that no one dies in unnecessary suffering.

The HeartWay was birthed! Leading with heart! 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. Death with Dignity is about embracing life and honoring death.  

My studies advanced to a doctorate degree in Mythology and Depth psychology. All of my work Doctorate studies focused on 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 studies took me all over the world deepening my practices and ability to be present to death. Death may only be understood in our psyche and souls where we are connected to our ancestors in our dreams and imagination.

I have held hundreds as they crossed the threshold for which they must walk alone in death!

Each client allows me the privilege of witnessing the great mystery of this life–my breath escapes.

The question: How can I do this work?

The answer:  I cannot not do this work!  The work chose me!!!  I say with the deepest of gratitude.


My Trauma Story

My personal trauma has inspired a 50-year healing voyage. My journey into my fears, terror & awe with life & death began when I was about 6 years old!

I was so desperately afraid at such a ripe young age. Afraid of people, myself & death. I was very anxious, frightened & I felt very alone. I can remember hiding under my blankets trying to imagine what death might be like. I imagined death was dark, lonely, and suffocating. I always took my little dog with me, so I was not alone. My experiments only made matters worse for my little girl. My fears amplified!

My growing up years were filled with a constant diet of physical & emotional trauma. I grew up in a home filled with daily physical & emotional abuse. Beaten with a belt often, by my father, for benign childhood behaviors. I can remember hiding in my dirty close hamper while my brother was being beaten—knowing I was next.

I can’t even begin to explain the terror I felt in my bones. I lived my childhood, tippy toeing around my life afraid that the belt would swing with every step I took. This fear owned my life for more than three decades. I still can feel the effects on my mind & heart every day. The scars are deep within my essence. The traces of trauma affect my every action.

For many years, I relived & relived my trauma every time I witnessed a child being struck, a violent act on film & when I heard raised voices.  My nervous system was ever so sensitive.

At the same time, as a young child, many family members were dying all around me of heart disease & cancer. I was not permitted to witness their dis-ease, see them in the hospital, or attend their funerals. My fears seized my breath & I sank deeper into an abyss of fright. I was convinced now, that the world was unsafe; that illness & death was beyond terrifying. There didn’t seem to be a safe place anywhere. I was not permitted to touch life or death. I felt alone & isolated.

My mind experienced life & death as dark, scary, & bleak. In hindsight, I am amazed that I was not suicidal, but I believe that I would have been too scared to attempt any violence. I took a vow of Ahimsa in that dirty close hamper. Of course, I did not know the word Ahimsa. I just knew it was wrong to harm & I vowed to never harm a living thing at that moment in my terror.

I believe this was the first moment I experienced being held by God.

My fear continued to intensify as I grew up!  It manifested as a low-grade anxiety, very low esteem, & fear that I was defective & unlovable. My post-traumatic reactions were incomprehensible & overwhelming. I felt out of control & feared that I was damaged to the core & beyond redemption.

I did everything I could to be safe—so that death would not touch me! Yet, somehow, I still believed. Divine intervention was my saving grace. I had hope. I believed in something beyond my comprehension. I was determined to find the light.

This inspired 45 years of health & wellness training, mindfulness, yoga, & psycho/spiritual development!

I lived with my fears the best that I could till after my undergraduate studies.  In these days, no one uttered a word about abuse or death!  It was easy to hide my fear amongst all the fear around me!  

Brave & so very naïve, I dove directly into the fire! I have no doubt grace had a hold of my hand. I blindly & faithfully took the plunge with the attitude of ‘face your fears’ even when the tears & terror take your breath away!  

I began my healing, in 1982 after being violently raped by a man. My pain, fears, & death anxiety inspired me to begin a very arduous expedition. I threw myself upon the fire. I began an intimate relationship with my trauma, mind, spirit, & body.  

I studied & applied myself in the fields of psychology, mythology, nutritional studies, Ayurveda, yoga, self-help books & programs. I did anything I could to stop my suffering. I moved constantly so that I would not have to be in my silence—where I had to feel. I began running, long distance bike riding, personal training, fitness classes, hiking, and became an aerobics & yoga instructor to name only a few outlets for my pain.

I spent years in counseling, (then became a counselor),  a marketing manager & corporate business woman; dove into death as a hospice social worker; earned my doctorate; became an end of life practitioner, & now the Founder of The HeartWay, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to serves those who are at end of life transitions, their caregivers, & loved ones.  

The journey continues

I suffer mostly with my PTSD in moments where the residue of trauma had left their marks & scar tissue. I still, at times in my life, feel the impairment in my cognitions. My inability to retain information & recall certain memories is impaired. (hence my support notes aka cheater notes) For many years I felt shamed & flawed. It took me decades to understand why it was so difficult to absorb information after diligent attempts to comprehend, study, regurgitate, & memorize.

Through out the years, I continue to study and learn how trauma changes development and brain functions in children and adults. This knowledge gave me the encouragement to find healing tools and to continue to explore acceptance.

Early on in my healing, I began to recognize that my pain was experienced in my body & if I kept running, exercising, bike riding, & eating healthy—my mind would be calmer. There was an immediate liberation from my anxiety. In those days, I could not even do yoga. When it was time for Shavasana or even rest after workout classes I would lie down and begin to immediately weep. From that moment on, I avoided Shavasana till later in my healing and I could see how much pain my body held. I now look forward to the sacred bliss of Shavasana, Yoga Nidra and Meditation.

My healing continues on this undying path of development we all are walking upon.

The most profound healing tools I discovered were those from the ancient traditions of yoga, Ayurveda, meditation & Yoga Nidra. I now know, that thru natural selection and divine support, I choose healing modalities that assisted in creating neuroplasticity in my brain. I continue as a humble student of all these teachings—deepening with each practice.  I have also found writing (specifically love letters) to be a profoundly healing practice as well as working with beautiful psycho/spiritual healers helping me to digesting my traumatic memories.

I found Yoga Nidra a few years ago and utilize it in my personal practices & daily with my clients. For some, Yoga Nidra provides a pathway to healing, for others a passageway to a spiritual dimension of life & death, our soul’s vision, & the opportunity to transcend fears. This continues to be true for myself.

Many clients & their families have found Yoga Nidra extremely helpful in managing their pain, anxiety, & cultivating spiritual serenity.  I have the profound honor of witnessing many transcend their fears in life and death. Yoga Nidra provides a path to developing a deeper connection to their subtle & spiritual body where they become free to embrace their lives.

I personally practice Yoga Nidra when I am anxious, exhausted or feeling overwhelmed with emotions; or when I have any dis-ease in my body. Yoga Nidra has provided me with a path to connect with my true nature—continue to heal my trauma & develop a relationship with my most authentic sense of soul as an inner “life-force” that is eternal & where trauma is absent.  

I am deeply grateful for all my life. Trauma has had a profound influence in my life. So very grateful to all my teachers. My struggles have taught me how to love deeply, they have inspired the depth of compassion in my heart for all beings (inclusive of my abusers), and a fiery passion to serve.  

The body keeps the score & tells our stories throughout our lives. It is a journey without a destination.

The road to recovery is the road of life.

Namaste’ for your kind listening hearts.

Dr. Andrea Deerheart, PhD, ELP

President and Founder of The HeartWay

Dr. Andrea Deerheart is the passionate founder of The HeartWay, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to embracing life thru honoring death, and author of Elli’s Ride: Death Beyond Imagination and the recording, Yoga Nidra: Graceful Transitions. Her primary work and teaching focuses on issues related to aging, radiant well-being, cultural mythology, death and dying, as well as grief and loss, and mindful and compassionate care. Her Doctorate degree is in mythology with an emphasis in depth psychology, and comparative religions, death, dying, and beyond.