But I'm the Expert?

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By Billy Mitchell

Recently I was part of a great group of people who came together at one of my town’s local libraries to watch the Frontline PBS documentary film “Being Mortal” * by Dr. Atul Gawande. After watching the documentary, I joined a small panel to take questions from a moderator and audience regarding death, dying, and end of life issues.

I’m not sure how the host of the event felt, but I felt like the evening was a huge success. We had a great turnout and everyone was extremely engaged with both the documentary and conversation that followed. I’m grateful I was asked to be a part of it and I’m already looking forward to another similar event taking place in a couple of weeks.

With all that said, after any event I try my best to check-in with myself and see if there are any lessons or take-aways from the time. Last night as I processed my time with everyone at the library, there was one thought ringing in my mind. I’m not even sure who else noticed, but it was something that bothered me and I can’t stop thinking about it.

So, what happened? Something that happens very frequently in society. Something I have spent a career educating people on how to not fall victim to. Yet, I fell victim to it myself.

I noticed during the documentary someone (I can’t recall who as I write this) was struggling with using the term “dead” or “die.” This is extremely common. When you watch for it, you notice it happens all the time. Even during our panel discussion someone used the phrase “this topic we are discussing” repeatedly instead of “death.” She would say, “we are here to talk about…’this topic’ tonight.” At one point, I thought, “I don’t think anyone has said the words “death” or “die” or “dead” tonight. It’s like we’ve walked up to the edge of the cliff and we are just too afraid to peak over the other side.

The funny thing is a few minutes later a person asked me a great question about difficult experiences in hospice. As I answered his questions I felt myself getting to the part “and the night he died”, but instead I opted for, “and the night he (I felt myself pause right here) passed.” After the word left my mouth I thought, “that was an odd thing for me to say.” I do not normally talk that way. I have helped host an event called “Death Café” where people sat around, drank coffee, ate cake, and talked about what was on their mind regarding death and dying. But, here I am now talking about “he passed?” Might not seem like a big deal, but it was. Something had shifted me during the event. What was it? What was going on?

I’m sure no one in the room noticed it happened, but I did. Death is not difficult for me to talk about anymore. It is no longer taboo or impolite. I don’t mean for that to come across as unfeeling or provocative. It’s just I’ve been in and around hospice for many years. I feel like I’ve been given a real gift. I see death as a natural part of life. It’s not a fun part of life and it’s an extremely difficult part of life (often tragic), but it is natural.

One thing I’m passionate about is helping others feel more comfortable talking about death and dying. I have found that someone needs to name the elephant in the room during times of tragedy, illness, or simply old age. When difficult things aren’t named and talked about emotions can get buried and they later seep out in the form of bitterness.

The interesting thing I found from this event was how easy it is to get swept away into a culture of not wanting to be the one who says, “the d word.” I had forgotten how hard it can be to have those discussions. The best lesson I learned that night as the “expert panelist” was no matter how much I know, I still should have the courage in the moment to apply the knowledge. As a caregiving professional, it isn’t just about how much knowledge I give others, but how do I encourage and possibly inspire them to have the courage to have these difficult conversations. Knowing is not enough, doing is what really matters… take it from the expert (the expert who will do better next time).

* I highly recommend the book and the documentary by Dr. Gawande.

Billy Mitchell, MA, HCA is Administrator at TrueVine HealthCare (Home Health-Palliative-Hospice) located in Norman, Oklahoma.