I’m an end-of-life educator. Here’s what I’ve learned about death.
- Terri Daniel is a clinical chaplain, certified trauma professional, and end-of-life educator certified in death, dying, and bereavement by the Association of Death Education and Counseling.
- When her 16-year-old son died in 2006, she realized that the prevailing American imagery around death was violent and scary, so she began researching different death traditions.
- Eight months after her son died peacefully at home, she moved across the country and became a hospice volunteer, and began training to become an interfaith chaplain.
- After accumulating degrees related to religion, death, dying, and grief, she's learned that death and grief are medicalized in America — and that it's not something you "recover" from.
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It's not the kind of career you dream about as a kid. It's not glamorous like an astronaut or a rock star, and it's not easy to explain when someone asks what you do for a living. If you're self-employed like I am, there's no 401(k) or vacation pay, and you work seven days a week. But the good news is that there's no glass ceiling, and no age discrimination (maturity is an asset). All you need is an education in counseling and religious studies, some multi-cultural literacy, experience working in clinical settings, and a passion for helping people face death and grief.
When I tell people l what I do, the standard response is, "Wow, how can you do that? It must be so hard."
I tell them that it's hard to work in a coal mine. It's hard to be a soldier in combat. But this isn't hard. It isn't even work. It's worship.
Before you click away because you think this is going to be a religious tome, trust me: It's anything but. When I say "worship," I'm not talking about gods or religious traditions. I'm talking about the sacred passage from one dimension to another, otherwise known as death. And it includes the response of the loved ones who will miss the departed, otherwise known as grief.
I found my way into this unique profession the same way many hospice workers do: I was motivated by a profound personal loss and grief experience. My 16-year-old son died in 2006 as the result of a rare metabolic disorder that transformed him, over time, from a typical, active seven-year-old into a wheelchair-bound teenager who could not speak, use the bathroom, or feed himself. From the day of diagnosis, his life expectancy was five to 10 years.
Like most American kids, the only information he had about death came from television, movies, and video games. Although he couldn't verbalize this, I imagined that he thought of death as a violent, angry, terrifying event. So I began studying death traditions and afterlife beliefs from a variety of diverse cultures, looking for positive imagery and empowering cosmologies that would help him be less afraid.
His peaceful death at home was pristine and beautiful, and I felt honored to be included in that rarified, numinous space. The experience of being present for a death was so spiritually expansive that I wanted to encounter it again. Eight months later, after moving across the country and starting a new life, I became a hospice volunteer.
From there, after hearing hundreds of dying patients and their loved ones express their spiritual concerns, I wanted to help them by addressing those concerns from a perspective that wasn't bound by religious conventions. So I began training to be an interfaith chaplain.
Even though I do not align with any particular religious tradition, I went back to school and got a bachelor's degree in religious studies (so I could better understand the views of the people I was working with). I then went on to get a masters degree in pastoral care, and eventually a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral care and counseling. I also accumulated a pile of certificates related to working with death, dying, and grief. When my son was a little boy, I sent him to school. Now, acting as a spiritual guide from beyond the veil, he was sending me to school.
I now travel around the US teaching workshops on loss, trauma, and grief. I've published four books on the subject, and I run a nonprofit organization that produces The Afterlife Conference, which helps people embrace a healthier relationship with death.
If I could sum up what I've learned and what I teach, I would offer these messages:
In America, death and grief have been medicalized
Many of our religious structures perpetuate the fear of death and complicate the grieving process. Traditionally, we have had very few effective tools for relieving that fear. But today, due to increasing multicultural awareness, new perspectives and practices are available.
Grieving is not a disorder from which we 'recover'
It's a normal and natural process that most of the time does not require therapeutic intervention.
I use the term "being present with grief," rather than "coping" with grief. Coping is what we do when something is unbearable and we want to make it go away. Yes, grief can feel that way, but it also invites — demands — that we work with it in order to heal. If we have an adversarial relationship with our grief, we won't have a healthy mourning process.
Healing comes from integration, not separation
When we experience loss and trauma, it disintegrates us; it breaks us into pieces and shatters our assumptions and beliefs about how life is supposed to work. The healing process is about putting those pieces together again, rebuilding and restoring ourselves. The ability to accept the loss and honor the journey is the glue that holds those new pieces in place.