Close-up Adult woman and old woman holding hands

I’m frequently asked why I’d choose a challenging profession like hospice nursing. People wonder if it’s depressing. While sadness is inevitable, I find my work to be a sacred experience. The people I’ve cared for during their final moments have reshaped my perspective on life, leaving me with precious and inspiring stories.

Take Jason, 80 years old, married with children and grandchildren. When he was diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer and his days were numbered, his family gathered in the home he and his wife, Susan, had built together.

I’d been Jason’s hospice nurse for several weeks, and his condition, though terminal, had been stable. On my last visit, however, his condition shifted.

In their bedroom, Jason was unconscious and unresponsive. Jason and Susan’s three children and several grandchildren surrounded his bed, flipping through photo albums. Laughter and tears mingled as they shared cherished memories: lake trips, holiday celebrations, and childhood mischief. The love surrounding Jason was everything anyone could desire as they approached death.

Wanting to respect their time while remaining available, I took notes in an office across the hall. As I worked, I overheard snippets of their conversation.

“We love you, Dad. We love you.” “It’s so easy to love you.”

“You’ve been the best husband.” “It’s okay. You can let go.”

“We love you.”

The family seamlessly adapted to Jason’s sudden decline, bidding farewell as they wished. From my perspective, it was a potent, sacred expression of love. Ironically, it felt like this kind of death is what life should be about.

My work isn’t depressing because I see patients experience beautiful deaths, embraced by love in a place that’s good. I witness families and friends loving each other deeply. I help those who are dying find comfort in their passing, assisting them and their loved ones to accept the reality of death—which empowers them to live better and die better. I see the power of what’s possible when we faithfully accompany people toward death. As professionals, or as loved ones, we have the ability to make a real difference in people’s lives.

Often, I hear family members dismissing the experiences of the dying person. It manifests in different ways:

“Don’t say stuff like that, Dad. You’re not going to die.”

“Don’t talk about how much you love me. You’re not going to die.”

“I don’t want to learn how to take care of the garden because you’re not going to die.”

I understand this can be difficult, but we do the dying person a disservice when we silence their truth. They know they’re dying, and they deserve the space to talk about it. Is talking about death comfortable? Rarely. Is it a way to honor and care for the dying person? Absolutely. It’s always time to talk about death. Talk about it when you’re sick. Talk about it when you’re healthy. Talk about it at Thanksgiving dinner. There’s never a wrong time to discuss death.

Talking about—and even simply being around—death is often perceived as a painful experience. But it doesn’t have to be. When a loved one is dying, I encourage their loved ones to pause and pay attention to what they are experiencing. Notice the sense of stillness. Pause and be present in the moment. Acknowledge your feelings and needs. Embrace the silence, or turn on music if you prefer.

At some point, you’ll arrange for the body to be taken from the home.

Eventually, you’ll call everyone who needs to know.

Ultimately, you’ll handle other responsibilities. One day, you’ll wash the sheets and make the bed.

But when the person you love dies, there’s no rush. Death isn’t an emergency. Give yourself the gift of pausing to be present.

Excerpted from by Julie McFadden, RN with permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Julie McFadden, RN, 2024.