“This is How We Die”: A Morning with a Hospice Nurse

“This is How We Die”: A Morning with a Hospice Nurse

On Tuesday morning all I knew was that I was setting up an O’Connor table at the Heartland Hospice event that we were co-hosting. I got the table cloth & brochures all set out, greeted the attendees, and sat down in the back intending to “work” on my computer when the speaker, Barbara Karnes, a hospice nurse of 32 years, began speaking.

She said, “I don’t want to pretend that this is all Truth with a Capitol T.

This is MY experience.

Dying is the hardest thing we live through.”

(and you do live through it, that is, until you die)

That got my attention. I had the privilege of sitting for the next two hours hearing the stories and wisdom of this nurse. I typed out as much as I could of what she said, filling up 4 pages of notes and still not capturing all the information. –

Here are some of the incredible insights she gave me about death that Tuesday morning:

“We don’t die like the movies” – She mentioned scenes in movies where the dying person looks beautiful and radiant, perhaps they’re imparting some incredible words of wisdom that wrap up the whole story perfectly and then, they die . . . “This is not how people die,” she said. When people are dying of disease or  cancer, the kind of people she gets to work with on hospice. “They don’t have the energy to speak, and if they are speaking, you probably can’t hear or understand what they are saying.”

“If they are a controlling person, they will control how and when they die” She said that protective spouses or parents want to spare their loved ones from being there when they die. They will wait until they are alone to let go. She also said that if they want you there when they are going to die, then that is what will happen.

“No one dies alone” – Barbara said that all her years of experience have convinced her that we are ushered into the “other world” by the loved ones that have gone before them. She recounted the story of a 23 year old girl she was caring for whose brother died 3 weeks before she eventually would. The family chose not to tell her about his passing but shortly afterward all she could talk about was “Jim, Jim, Jim,” her brother. Her boyfriend thought she was confused, but then she looked at him and said, “No, I know who you are, Jim is here and says he’s going to take care of me.” Barbara recounted other stories like this, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a dry eye in that room.

“Dying is always, always sad, it will never be ok. but it doesn’t have to be BAD.” – this is how you take something scary and negative and make it into a more normal and natural process that helps neutralize the fear.

Barbara inspired me and gave me truth and honesty about an element of life most of us know very little about. She changed how I see dying. She spoke about it with so much familiarity, knowledge, comfort and gentleness that it took out so much of the frightening mystery that dying is cloaked in. It will never be ok, but it doesn’t have to be bad or frightening.

To hear Barbara’s own words about dying, click here Gone From My Sight. To obtain a copy of her book,“Gone From My Sight” please contact Becky Lomaka.

What do you think of Barbara’s premises?’

In your experience, have you seen any of these played out?


Illustration Credit: Anna and Elena Balbusso

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.


  1. Kasey says:

    Molly, as always your posts are enlightening..
    My mother did not want me to see her die.. For years I carried around the guilt that I should have been with her, until the day my aunt (her sister) said, “Your mother didn’t want you to see her die”.. At that moment I realized that was my mothers “choice”. I let go of that guilt and had even more respect for my sweet, crazy making mom..

    Still taking care of me in death.

    I have a copy of Gone from My Sight… excellent

    • Molly says:

      “Still taking care of me in death” – what a beautiful truth. Your mom was absolutely caring for you, thinking of you, and not wanting to cause you any more pain. It’s amazing to hear more stories that just continue to back up what Barbara shared.

      Thank you so much for sharing Kasey, I’m so glad that that guilt isn’t a part of your life any more. What a healing thing for your aunt to say – healing you with wisdom & truth.

      Love your response!

  2. Shasta Thompson says:

    This is great Molly! I’d love to hear more from this hospice nurse, I was with my grandma while she was dying, and though she couldn’t talk it was evident she was seeing something we weren’t.

    • Molly says:

      Wow Shasta. There were so many things that she talked about that I could relate to as well as I thought about watching my grandpa die from cancer. You should totally watch the video she does, it’s an absolutely amazing talk. I’ll also try to remember to let you know about this if she comes back next year!

      Thanks for reading & sharing!

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