Hospice nurse comforts the dying and bereaved through her work

Jody Feinberg

For nearly two decades, hospice nurse Elissa Al-Chokhachy has listened to people talk about experiences that defy reason. After a death, a loved one comes to a person through sight, sound, touch, smell or a sign.

“Originally, I thought it was really rare that people had these experiences of loved ones after they die,” said Al-Chokhachy, 56, a board-certified hospice and palliative care nurse. “I can now say it’s quite common, but very few people talk about it. They don’t want people to think they’re crazy, and they’re not even sure it’s real or not.”

Al-Chokhachy, who graduated from Boston College School of Nursing in 1981, is convinced that life continues after death. And she draws on that conviction to provide comfort, hope and healing to the dying and bereaved.

Last month, she began visiting bookstores to talk about and read from her new book, “Miraculous Moments: True Stories Affirming Life Goes On” (Llewellyn Publications, Minnesota).

The book features 88 narratives she has collected over a dozen years from 73 people, many of them medical professionals and educators. She is collecting stories from parents who have lost children, which will appear in a companion book, “Miraculous Moments for Bereaved Parents,” in early 2012.

“Miraculous Moments” includes a variety of stories. Marianne Withington of Plymouth, Mass., grieved over the suffering and death of her husband, Cricket, who died of renal cancer in 2007. One night, her husband came to her in a dream, looking healthy, and provided the sign to a problem plaguing her – the location of a lost car key. She pleaded with him for another sign that he was all right.

“I was feeling extremely sad and missing Cricket terribly,” wrote Withington, a music instructor, actress and marathon runner. “Then the strangest thing happened. I actually felt a weight on the bed next to me, and I felt someone kissing me. I don’t know whether I was half asleep or fully awake, but it happened.”

Karen Thwing of Pembroke, Mass., a nurse at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, wrote that she believes her ill grandfather came to say goodbye to her when she saw him in dream, looking peaceful and saying he was ready to go. When she woke up in the morning, she learned that he had died.

Grieving for his wife 14 years ago, Richard Wainwright of Scituate, Mass., was having an emotional breakdown while driving when he had a lifesaving encounter that turned him from a skeptical agnostic into a believer in never-ending life.

“The more I work with the dying, the more I believe in life after death,” said Al-Chokhachy, who practices with Merrimack Valley Hospice and is a health care counselor at North Shore Community College. “I know there is life after death because there are so many affirmations.”

While Al-Chokhachy has no doubts, she accepts that other people do not share her conviction. When caring for the dying and their relatives, she asks them about their spiritual orientation, and then takes her cues from their responses.

“I am respectful of where everyone is in their faith or lack thereof,” she said. ‘I’m not out to convince the skeptics. I’m out to help those who believe and those who are on the fence and need affirmation that their experience is real.”

Her belief in the afterlife allows her to approach her work with an optimism in the face of so much suffering and to offer comfort to others.

“People ask me, ‘How can you do that work? It’s so depressing,’” she said. “I say it’s the most rewarding work because it can make a huge difference in the quality of the time patients have left. My faith is one of my greatest assets as a hospice nurse, because it allows me to be fully present. I know death is not the end. It’s just a transition, and our spirit lives on.”

Al-Chokhachy had a transformative experience at age 23, after the car accident death of her 29-year-old cousin, with whom she grew up. Although raised a Protestant, she previously hadn’t given much thought to life after death.

“I saw my cousin totally healed, radiating such peace and love and light and happiness,” she said. “When I came out of that experience, my grief was healed because I knew he was OK. It cemented my faith in life after death.”

Al-Chokhachy has not, however, experienced the presence of her father, Modhaffer Al-Chokhachy, a Jordan Hospital surgeon who died at age 79 in 2009. But she said all her family members have, including her half-brother, David Chokachi, an actor who starred in the television series “Baywatch.”

“I don’t know what dad really thought about life after death, but I know he was excited about the book coming out and he gave my children’s books to others,” Al-Chokhachy said.

Divorced and the mother of three children ages 25 to 29, Al-Chokhachy wrote two children’s books in 1999 and 2001: “The Angel with the Golden Glow: A Family’s Journey Through Loss & Healing,” and “How Can I Help, Papa? A Child’s Journey Through Loss & Healing.”

To bolster her hospice commitment and skill, Al-Chokhachy last year earned a master’s degree in thanatology from Hood College in Maryland. Thanatology is the study of death, particularly the psychological, societal and spiritual aspects.

In October, she will speak about “death communication, nearing death awareness and near death experiences” at the 14th annual Interdisciplinary Conference on Supportive Care, Hospice and Palliative Medicine at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I’m excited to now be getting the word out,” she said. “I would never be speaking at this medical conference without the board certification and the degree, because they are necessary to be taken seriously.”

The Patriot Ledger