Hospice RN Brings Death and Dying to the Dinner Table

January 25th, 2012

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By , BSN, RN

Laurel Lewis, RN is a hospice nurse in Southern California. She is passionate about death and dying and the pathways we choose to meet the end of life. A young widow herself, she brings personal experience along with the drive to comfort and provide for others to what she calls dinner table conversation.

”The comfort level I had with death and dying was always strong. I just thought all hospice nurses were old. I thought you became a hospice nurse after years of experience; when you were at the end of your career. I didn’t have any experience with death and dying. This comfort I have with death was something I should have examined. When my husband died I thought, ‘That’s it! When I go back to work I’m going to be a hospice nurse.”

What do you tell new nurses who are interested in working in hospice?

”I tell them to find a local hospice and talk to the people who work there. They really need to expose themselves to real hospice nursing. I really encourage those who feel comfortable with hospice to seek out hospice nurses and ask if they can ride along. And, you need to take an inventory of what you can handle. I’m still learning about life and death. It’s a slow process. You have to do a lot of personal work. It has all unfolded from that interest.

”If you are uncomfortable and scared of death and dying this isn’t the area for you. I am drawn to dying patients. I can comfort them. ‘Oh, you are scared—I can work with that.”

Did you have a formal education in hospice nursing, a degree? What qualifications brought you here?

”I think it is years of experience being a hospice nurse. I learned in the field. The graduate degree I have is in spiritual psychology. It’s been my experience that has led me here. “

”Anytime anyone wanted to talk about death and dying I was there. And, that’s really pretty rare. I was visiting a friend in France and we were talking about death and dying over coffee and I thought, ‘this is the way it should be, sitting somewhere in comfort.”

Is most hospice nursing done in the client’s home?

”Much more is done at home. In the Los Angeles area we have no freestanding hospice centers. There are some units in extended care facilities but yes, most people stay in their own homes. I know in other places, out on the East Coast, there are more hospices in their own facilities. “

Back in 2010 Oprah Winfrey hosted a search for a new television show idea and a star to go with it. Lewis submitted a video audition called Bringing Death and Dying to the Dinner Table. An idea was born.

”A friend called and said why don’t you host one. I had my first dinner party a month later. The idea was a gradual, organic, unfolding from wanting to talk about it to her suggesting it.”

Lewis has been hosting the "Death and Dying Dinner Party" monthly, ever since. At first all the guests were invited to her home but now she has a permanent venue at Hospice Partners of Southern California's administrative offices. The table is set with fine china and everyone contributes a dish. 

It doesn’t seem like normal dinner table conversation.

”Death and dying should be talked about before we are dying, not as it is happening. We need to shine a light on it.

”Great revelations are had at these dinner parties. People are longing to talk about this. People want to talk, they are longing for more serious synergy, they are interested in interacting and having these conversations.“

How many people make a good dinner table conversation?

”Twelve people is ideal, 14 max. Fewer than nine people is often difficult because there may be too many listeners. People come but they may not want to share. I ‘m sort of a screener. I make it clear these dinners are not therapy sessions. We get very mixed groups, young and old, professionals and non-professionals. I have had several nurses, but no doctors yet. At first it was friends and supporters, colleagues. Then there started being friends of friends. Recently we have had a few vendors, people with home health agencies. The parties are really branching out, more strangers. My favorite part is how it has unfolded in slow, healthy growth. “

It’s such a serious topic, do people laugh?

Lewis laughs:

”For sure! They start out pretty somber. They are like you, they don’t know what’s going to happen. Then they start to relax when they realize it’s not an all doom and gloom kind of night. Once we introduce ourselves and know we are shining a light on this thing we ride all kinds of emotional waves. There will be tears, then 20 minutes later there will be laughing at some story. “

”It takes courage to come to this venue and share. It is a willingness to come and participate with other people. They could sit at home and read a book on the topic.”

What would you suggest if other people wanted to start dinner parties like this in their community?”

”I am trying to put together a business model for people who want to facilitate this in their area. You must have great communication skills and must be comfortable with death and dying. I rarely share at these get togethers unless it is to answer questions, like medical or healthcare questions. Not everyone can let these conversations unfold without taking part. They must be clear on what they are doing and why they are doing it. “

Is there a big future in death and dying?

”I’m so excited about that question. I feel like I am at the front of the biggest waves to hit America. Baby boomers are taking care of their parents, who are dying. And in the next 20 to 30 years the boomers will be dying, too. If we don’t get a grip on talking about death and dying and we treat ourselves to the very end of life we will totally overwhelm the system.

”We need to discuss all the alternatives. What is hospice, about pharmaceuticals and technology and what does it mean as huge parts of the population will be dying. It is going to take a lot of education about illness and disease process.

”It is definitely a field to get into at this stage of the game and we need more nurses. We need more nurses for all the healthcare issues we are going to be facing into the future. “

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