Last year, Lake Effect broadcast a series of conversations about death and dying in the modern world. It turns out, for most of us in the United States – where death often happens away from home – we tend to shy away from talking about the inevitable.
Cheri Milton says in avoiding talking about death, we’re missing an opportunity - to learn about life. As a grief counselor and family therapist, Milton has spent the last several years helping patients and their families at Dane County’s largest hospice, Agrace Hospice Care.
"Doing grief counseling with people who are dying, you really quickly get to the point of zooming out and seeing the big picture – what really matters and putting it in perspective," she says. "And then laughing together about the true joys in life."
She’s collected these experiences in a new book called Before You Go: Stories For A Better Life From Those Facing Death. They tell the stories of lessons her patients have taught her over the years.
That includes a woman in her late 50s dying from ALS. The woman wasn't ready to die, even while each day her illness robbed her of something new, whether it was the ability to walk or to speak. Yet, Milton says this woman always expressed gratitude for what she could still do - even until the very end.
"She talked about how she didn't want to die and how she had lost everything, but she was so grateful that they couldn't take away her tears - she could still cry and express her emotions about her circumstances," she says. "I was just undone. I was just forever changed."
Milton says each of her patients and their families have a approached dying in different ways. Some refuse to go quietly and are defiant until the end, like one older woman who literally died sitting up, even though laying down would have been much more comfortable. Others, like the children of a young mother, learn how to grieve the coming loss while appreciating the time they have left.
All of her patients have shown Milton what makes for a "good death."
"There can be good deaths," she says. "We can help when families allow us to come alongside and give them the best possible death that they can experience, where the family feels supported, they feel that this tragic event is pulling them closer and not pulling them apart, and it leaves them set up to be much healthier in their survivorship as they grieve the loss of their loved one."
From these "good deaths," Milton says she has learned lessons for a good life, from learning to be grateful for what you have, to not waiting to express how you really feel, to being generous with your time for others, and learning when to let go.
"If we just pause and let ourselves consider, I think we can learn and appreciate and have better lives on a daily basis from those who aren't getting that chance," she says. "Like I say at work, any day that I'm not a patient is a great day."