by Beth Almerini, Class of 2009
The work I do in the world is, essentially, to dwell in the sacred space of uncertainty with people of all ages and their families. I have been a hospice nurse for 26 years and uncertainty is part and parcel of what I do. I actually came to this work because I thought it would be a lovely way to deepen the way I worked with the dying which, from the very beginning, felt deeply spiritual.
I had an experience in nursing school that was a defining moment in my life. One day I cared for a mother in labor with a stillborn son, a huge challenge for a twenty year old in her first clinical rotation. I had no idea what to do or how I could possibly help, until I watched my instructor, a woman of deep kindness and grace. While everyone else in the room focused on the practical business of delivering the baby, I watched Irene bring a chair right next to that woman’s head; sit with her, stroke her hair, cry with her and say who knows what to her. She, out of everyone else in that room, did the work that really mattered, helping that mother welcome her child into life…and into death. The sacredness of that moment took my breath away and I found my place in the world.
Death is the ultimate certainty - I’m sorry, but no matter how much organic kale salad you eat, you will die. That certainty, though, is riddled with ambiguities of all types - How? When? From what cause? Will it be fast or take a long time? Will I be alone and in pain or be comfortable and have loved ones beside me? Will I be remembered? Or the more personal ones: how many more times will I hold my baby daughter close to my heart? Will my father make it here while I can still tell him I love him? Having the ability to hold these questions, tolerate their uncertainty and help to navigate them is, I think, what the people and families facing the end of life need most; not so much a person who has all the answers and tells them what to do and how to do it.
Being able to sit with people in their pain and sorrow and questions; to simply be present with them - that is the best gift you can give and sometimes the only one you have.