DAWN WALSH / EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE LILY HOUSE / WELLFLEET
Dawn Walsh moved here in 2015 to live and work among artists, writers, and the Outer Cape’s vibrant LGBTQ community. She is a founder and executive director of the Lily House in Wellfleet, a nonprofit community home for living and dying that expects to open its doors to its first terminally-ill residents in early 2023. Its mission: to help all of us become more courageous and accepting of death and dying as a natural and potentially transformative human experience and to provide compassionate hospice-level care to Cape neighbors, so that no one needs to worry about dying alone. Listen to Dawn speak here.
As a kid, I didn’t have any significant losses. I don’t have memories of burying a bird, or even a family pet. No family member died when I was a child.
The first and most significant human loss in my life — that put me on this path — was the death of my mother when I was 27. It came out of the blue, and it was traumatic. My entire life since that moment has been in response to that loss.
I never saw my mom after her death, and I never got a chance to say goodbye. I never got to tend to her body, to wash her, to love her, to lay hands on her. There are many studies that show when we do engage with death and dying and particularly with the body of our loved one after death, it helps us to incorporate the loss, because we see it, we’re touching it, we’re feeling it. It’s a tangible, visceral experience.
My introduction to alternative ways of approaching death and dying occurred about 10 years ago when I was living in Philadelphia. Linda, a good friend, died suddenly of a grand mal seizure. Living with epilepsy, she knew that she could go at any point, so she had her end-of-life wishes all in order, which included having her best girlfriends tend to her body after death.
I had never had any experience with the dead body. We were just sitting in the room, and then the funeral directors wheeled Linda in. One of Linda’s closest friends is a hospice nurse. She just got up and went right over. I found myself just getting up and following her, right up to Linda, immediately laying hands on her, like I had been doing it every day of my life. Other women came up, and we just started talking to her and telling stories and washing her, brushing her hair, anointing her. There were tears, of course, but there was a lot of joy and humor.
One of the most beautiful parts of that ceremony was shrouding her. That’s the moment when you are covering the body, the last time you will look into the face of your loved one who has died.
We had this beautiful tapestry that her brother brought her from India, and we rolled her from side to side and wrapped her in this shroud. And we said, “I love you. Thank you. Goodbye.”
I’ve heard this so many times: folks who are ready to accept their mortality at the end will often say things like “I’m not necessarily afraid of dying. I’m afraid of dying alone.” And none of us should have to worry about that.
As a hospice volunteer here on the Outer Cape, one of the first patients I had the opportunity to work with was a woman who had a terminal illness and was living at a care facility. At this stage of her life, she didn’t have close friends to be with her and help her through this end-of-life phase. And she didn’t have any other family here. She was alone and scared. She was just sitting in this room by herself, either lying in bed or sitting in a wheelchair, quite despondent, waiting for the tray of mashed potatoes and jello to be rolled into the room. She would perk up when I’d come in because I was there to talk with her about the fact that she was dying. She really wanted that. It was heartbreaking.
That was where the vision for the Lily House came from. Working with this one hospice patient, I said to myself, we can do better.
A vision flashed into my being. And the message was, we need a community home to hold and catch our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones, where they can die surrounded by love and community, dignity, grace, honor – all of the things that we all want for each other at the end of life.
The feeling that we’re striving to create at the Lily House will be one of calmness and peace, full of love, so that when folks are here, whether it’s our residents who are actually dying, as well as their friends and family, our volunteers, and the staff, when we all walk through the door there will be a feeling of serenity, of beauty, of love, of acceptance, and of joy.
The atmosphere that we’d like to create also includes that of the sacred. Dying and transitioning from this life to whatever happens after this life is profound, and it’s sacred. We want to honor the sacredness of life and the sacredness of dying, and the sacredness of what comes after death. Being present for that transition, holding a hand, sitting in silence, breathing together, staying in a moment that is transcendent — because when a life is transitioning there’s a way (that I’ve experienced anyway) that all human constructs of time and space and place just cease to exist.
There’s a way that you are so in a present moment with another human being that absolutely everything falls away, except the breath. And that is beyond words. That’s a moment of sacredness and of honor for a life that was led and the life that is leaving this world.