In recognition of Healthcare Decisions Day

How do you say goodbye…? Experiencing the death of someone in our life is unique for every one of us. We may say goodbye with love, regret, forgiveness, anger, or even humor. We may find ourselves touched or challenged in unexpected ways. We may have time to prepare with the dying person – or no time at all. And for some of us, we may find that saying goodbye is not one moment, but a process that continues after someone has died.

In recognition of Healthcare Decisions Day (Tuesday, April 16), Hospice SLO County invited community members to share their experiences with saying goodbye to a dying person in their life. Please know that these words, art and perspective will help spread awareness about the importance of advance care planning and some of the many ways of saying goodbye in times of dying.

We extend a warm thank you to everyone who shared their heartfelt work. Our committee was truly moved and inspired by your artwork, poetry and essays.



Watercolor paintings by Sandy Rakowitz




After waking from a dream hugging my dad, feeling the loss and separation from his death a month prior, I had a few words. I turned to watercolors to allow expression to the range of unspoken feelings and to have an outlet. I was feeling the “glass ½ empty.” One week after my dad’s “Celebration of Life” ceremony and two months after he passed away.

Dad as my guardian angel with cats, horses, elephant and whale guides. Inspired by a phrase I’d heard from Abraham Hicks and being asked if I supported my dad’s choice to “change his address.” This painting is my answer. Reaching into my connection, into being a Flower of Life, and nesting into “All-that-is” available, my “glass” is half full.

After painting “Sad Woman,” I felt a desire to connect with the warm feelings from my dream of hugging my dead. I wanted to feel him as he is now and began shifting from a sense of separation into connection with “All-that-is.” My glass was starting to fill up.



Essay by Sara Roahen

A friend stopped by last summer so we could meet her son for the first time.  A mellow toddler with springy curls and a pinchable chin, he was so pretty he made you want to give him things. My husband gifted him with some of our own son’s formerly prized toys—plastic heirlooms. As our friend organized to leave, I noticed my husband had packed some of the toys in a gallon-size Ziploc bag that I had washed and reused probably two dozen times. The bag had once contained my mom’s final batch of chocolate chip cookies; her schoolteacher handwriting still announced “dark choc chip” in blue Sharpie ink on the bag’s label. I felt a flush of panic that the Ziploc would soon be swinging out the front door inside our friend’s diaper bag, but I told myself to let it go. Let it go. I had almost religiously embraced this maxim since my mom’s death six years prior: if it’s not alive, who cares? Let it go.

The house my mom and dad shared was a haven of thoughtfully curated coziness and nostalgia. A cute, clay spider-monster I had made in second grade still rested on their dresser when she died; a rainbow-painted gecko from an island vacation greeted guests in the spare bathroom; a springer spaniel statuette memorialized the family dogs who had left us decades ago; violet-colored notepaper my grandmother had used for grocery lists sat on a “chatter bench” where a rotary phone once belonged; hurricane lamps passed down from relatives I had never met perched on antique tables. My mom wasn’t a hoarder, and her home wasn’t cluttered. A careful collection of objects imbued each room with memory and meaning. You felt like you were entering a story mid-narrative when you passed through the front door.

I never anticipated how abruptly and finally that particular story would end the moment my mom died. Thanks to the gifts of hospice care, she spent her final months in her own bedroom. I don’t remember where I was physically when she passed—was I lying in bed with her or sitting in the rocking chair? Was I holding her hand? Was my dad? I do remember how it felt like the three of us were one body, all breathing and then not breathing and then breathing again; like my dad and I resumed breathing for my mom when she no longer could. She would, therefore, always be with us and in us. I also remember how all meaning instantly drained from her things: her clothing, her mementoes, the objects and fabrics with which she had crafted our family’s domestic story. While my heart brimmed with my mom’s spirit, her once-welcoming home felt void even in its abundance. The objects themselves looked silly, their insignificance exposed. Many of them wound up at a second-hand store. My dad sold the place.

The takeaway seemed obvious and predictable: material possessions don’t matter. People matter. But how does that explain why, while helping pack up the house, I had rescued that used cookie bag from a kitchen drawer and stowed it in my suitcase? How does it explain why I took the bag home to Louisiana, and then, five years later, moved it to California where I continued to wash it, dry it, and reuse it? And how does it explain why, instead of calmly letting the bag go with our friend—because things don’t matter—I awkwardly intervened, transferring the toy pieces into a brand-new bag and stashing the used one in my pajama drawer for safekeeping?

Sticks of butter softening in a mixing bowl. Flour and sugar stored in matching opaque Tupperware caddies. Walnuts milled in a hand-driven chopper. Dented sheet pans smeared with butter. Brown-paper grocery bags spread flat for cooling mats. My mom didn’t like to cook, and she let us know it, but she turned out cookies without mess or bother, like an artist producing sketches. Snickerdoodles rolled in cinnamon sugar, peanut butter cookies crisscrossed with fork tines, sugar cutouts gladdened with lemon zest.

The recipe binder she kept didn’t contain her chocolate chip cookie recipe because she took it straight from the Toll House package every time. Even so, I’ve never been able to replicate those cookies, which were . . . Well, think about whatever it was your mom made perfectly. Maybe it was her grilled cheese or her roast chicken or her carne asada or her movie-night popcorn. Or maybe it was your dad or your auntie or a grandparent. Somebody made something that became your touchstone for what it tastes like when the universe is in perfect alignment, when your every need has been met. For me, that was my mom’s chocolate chip cookies. In later years, she preferred a New York Times recipe that called for dark chocolate disks and a sprinkle of sea salt, but she still always made some Toll House for the originalists.

I knew at the time it was my mom’s final batch. Lying awake in the basement guestroom, I could hear the pad of her footsteps and the muted bang of the cupboard doors upstairs as she leveled the flour and reached for the wooden spoon one last time. Her dream was to take the grandkids to Disney World, but she had gone from chemotherapy to palliative care so quickly that summer that we were lucky to squeeze in a road trip while she still had energy to leave the house. My mom might forget to pack her toothbrush, but she would never take a family road trip without cookies.

I ate those cookies on the enclosed porch of a red-painted vacation house in northern Wisconsin, one per night to make them last. My mom was dying, and yet here was the universe in perfect alignment, my every need being met. And I still have her custom-labeled Ziploc bag to prove it. A plastic heirloom in a pajama drawer.



Poem by Chris Schulz


What is more pure than grief?


A journey of a thousand miles in the

waters of the Salish Sea;

Orcas momma, grieving momma,

Tahlequah, sets sail with her

mast of death.  Like a floating raft

of frail sticks, she nudges her

dead calf along.


Days pass, weak from malnourishment,

Tahlequah wears her calf as a crown:

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and so on.

Dull, pin-hole eyes reveal her despair.


She does not recognize the wailing of

her own voice:


Baby, I can’t let you go, I can’t let you go.

My baby, my beautiful baby.


Seventeen days later, holding baby’s

tail in her mouth, Tahlequah stops

to rest.  Hearing the prayers and songs of

her circling pod, she is drawn into the

gentle magnetism of their love—

she lets baby go.


What is more pure than grief?