Two major occurrences prompted Mason alumna Lani Leary, PhD Education ’97, to make death her life’s calling. The first was when her mother died. The second was when Leary herself died.
“I saw what grief did to a family,” she says, recalling how she lost her mother when she was only 13. “I saw how not having information or language or role models really hindered the whole human process through grief. So I said to myself that something good was going to come out of this. I vowed to make it better for other people.”
She did not fall short of her goals. Today, Leary is a psychotherapist working with chronically ill, dying, and bereaved clients. She’s trained numerous hospice volunteers, taught therapeutic touch to nurses, provided bereavement support for clients and families, and sat at the bedside of more than 500 patients as they died. Her first book, No One Has to Die Alone, was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2012.
Leary’s introduction to a long career of service to others began when she was working on her bachelor’s degree in English from Mills College in Oakland, California. There she learned to read Braille, which led her to pursue a master’s in special education for the blind at Boston College. Her first job was working with the elderly blind population, and she soon discovered the part of the work she liked best was counseling clients and their families.
A few years later at age 29, another encounter with death affected Leary profoundly and led her down a new path in her career. During a routine medical procedure, Leary went into anaphylactic shock. Her heart stopped, and she died.
Leary had what she calls the “classic near-death experience described by hundreds of thousands of people.” In her book, she tells how she looked down on herself from above and began to move through a tunnel toward a light. She saw and spoke with her mother, all before she re-entered her body and “came back.”
The incident altered nearly everything about her. Things that once seemed important were hardly given a second thought. She could no longer walk down the street and simply pass strangers but began to “look inside them, feel their feelings, and know what was wrong with them.” It was hard for others to understand what she was going through, so she gravitated toward those most familiar with these emotions—the dying themselves.
“They seemed to be the only ones who understood me, who saw and knew some of the things I’d seen,” Leary says. “I knew that my work was to be with dying people because I no longer feared death.”
By this time, Leary was married to a man in the coast guard. Because they moved frequently, she began to work in hospices across the country. The opportunity to interact with different people suffering from all types of illnesses enlightened her. “They taught me what they needed at the end of their lives and what would help them,” she says. “I also worked with families and their bereavement afterward. I learned what they needed and how to help.”
While her husband was stationed in Washington, D.C., Leary decided the time was right to finish a doctoral program. She enrolled at Mason and in 1997 received her PhD in counseling and development, with a specialization in thanatology—the scientific study of death.
Leary developed and taught a death and dying course at Mason from 1996 to 1998. For the final project, she asked students to develop ways to identify and address their greatest fears about death. One graduate student said he feared his parents would die before he married and had a family. For his project, he videotaped his parents answering questions he thought his children might have. Another student, an only child, was most afraid she would one day have to write her parents’ obituaries; she ended up writing them with her parents’ help.
“She sat down with her father and asked him all the questions of his life, and in the process she learned a great deal about him,” Leary says. “It did not surprise me at all that about a year later, I got a letter from her saying her father had died suddenly, and it really would have been up to her to write that obituary. But she felt fully prepared because she had faced her fear.”
One of the most important things people need to know about death, Leary says, is that they can change their own anxieties and fears about it. When that happens, they become more responsive and more conscious of both the living and the dying.
“People are afraid of death,” she says, “so they don’t respond to people in need. They move away and resist and go into denial. I want to show them they can respond to the opportunity when a loved one is dying. There are attitudes, information, and skills they can learn that make a difference.”
We don’t have to know how to do everything perfectly around a dying person, she explains, but we do need to participate. Even young children can play a part.
“We teach children to be afraid or not afraid of death,” she says. “So it’s up to adults to model a healthy response. I teach five-year-olds that they can massage grandma’s hand or get up on the bed and cuddle with her and listen to her stories. It makes a huge difference to the people dying, to the family left behind, and to the whole multilevel of generations.”
Leary says the idea for her book, which has already sold out its first printing, came about when she was conducting training with a number of hospice workers. The book’s first half is devoted to helping the dying; the other half to helping the grieving.
Grief is also the focus of the sequel Leary is writing. “We still have this idea in our culture that people should get over their grief and get on with their life in just a matter of days,” she says, “even after the most significant person in their life dies. We don’t know how to support them because we haven’t resolved our own grief.”
Leary has presented lectures on the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) website and is the author of Healing Hands, a bestselling audiotape on therapeutic touch and pain management. She currently consults at two hospices and operates a private practice in Hawaii, where she lives. Each day, she says, she receives more requests for help.
“People who need help at the end of their lives, and families who need help navigating this event, find me,” she says. “When illness or a terminal diagnosis happens, most people feel like it’s a train wreck, and they don’t have the information they need ahead of time. I teach them how to face these things. I tell them, we can do this, and we can do this better.”