success stories

A Success Story in Making Death Less Frightening

Woman develops program to ease loneliness of dying patients
By Kerry Weber
Catholic News Service

"It means a lot just to know someone here cares." These are the words of a terminally ill prison inmate, but Donalyn Gross knows that they convey the feelings felt by many who are near death.

Gross has been working with the sick and dying for more than 26 years, and her experiences have been the foundation for the Good Endings Program that has been instituted in nursing homes throughout the country.

Good Endings is a program designed by Gross to ease the pain and loneliness experienced by those who are sick and dying in nursing homes. The core of the program is a group of volunteers who make up a "vigil team."

The members of this team are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure that someone is always available to sit with the dying. Such commitment from the volunteers provides comfort and relief for both the patients and their family members.

"The patients love it because they know that someone will be there for them," said Gross. "The families love it because it gives them a break and they know that someone is with their loved one."

Gross is presently the director of the Good Endings Program at Heritage Hall West Nursing Home in Agawam, where she continues the work that she has been dedicated to for years.

The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, Gross was brought up in the tradition of caring for others. While still in high school, she worked in a nursing home, and though she enjoyed her work she was troubled by one aspect of it.

"I saw so many people dying alone with no family visiting, no friends, and I said, that's not for me."

Gross later went on to receive her doctoral degree in thanatology which means she is qualified to counsel others on death and dying. She is also a certified social worker and certified music practitioner.

During the 1980s, she spent five years working with prison inmates with AIDS. She wrote two books on her experiences -- "Dying in Prison" and "Voices of the Dying, Reflections of the Living."

It was the simple things that made a difference for those she cared for, Gross said. "I used to make sure that when I would leave the prison every day that I would give each one of my guys a hug," she said.

Following her work in the prisons, Gross returned to working in nursing homes, but the general lack of death education among the staff worried her. She was inspired to use her knowledge to start the Good Endings Program at SunBridge Care and Rehabilitation for East Longmeadow, where she was working at the time.

After witnessing the success of the program at her own facility, Gross wrote an instructional booklet so that other nursing homes would know how to implement such a program. Many nursing homes expressed interest in her program, and it has taken off from there.

Gross credits some of the success to the flexibility of the program. "A facility can take the program and make it what they want," she said.

As part of their program, Heritage Hall West provides a hospitality suite and a resource library for the family members who may spend long hours at their facility. The vigil team may choose to read a book to the patients or play music for them, but sometimes their very presence is enough.

Gross says often a hand squeeze and some comforting words are what is needed. "We tell them it's OK. You can go when you're ready. We love you. You will be missed. I found that one of the great fears of someone who's dying is that they will be forgotten," she said.

Gross ensures that this does not happen by holding memorial services four times a year for those who have died. For those holding their own memorial services, she has recorded a CD of suggested songs.

Although her work may seem unusual, Gross wouldn't have it any other way. "People will say to me, 'Write a happy book. Write a romance story.' But I've just been doing this for so many years. I love it."

And Gross is putting no limits on how long she plans to continue her ministry. Along with the Good Endings Program, she offers workshops and seminars on death education.

"My heart is with the dying," she said. "As long as people continue to die, I'll continue to work."

- - -

Editor's Note: For more information on the Good Endings program, readers may visit its Web site at: www.goodendings.net or call: (413) 733-8592.