Podcast #80 Making Meaning at the End of Life – Rhea Mader, End-of-Life Practitioner

In her work as an end of-life practitioner, Rhea Mader finds herself in the deep end of the pool when it comes to conversations! Sometimes she simply brings the words dying and death into the room and that can make a difference. Sometimes she holds space for really big topics, such as “what meaning came from my life?” End of life doulas can add vocabulary, an objective presence, and the heart-to-heart piece that families and individuals might be seeking.


Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hullet and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I’m here with a special guest and a friend, and I’m just delighted to have Rhea madder joining me. Hi riaa. Hi Diane. Hi Rhea. Rhea and I got to know each other through the Conscious Dying Institute training, which we both took a few years back, and then subsequently went on to be, you know, teaching assistants for C D I and teach the Conscious Dying Educator Course along with another colleague.

And I think rhe just brings a tremendous amount to these kinds of discussions about end of life and families. And the dying process. So I was really excited that she said she’d come on and talk to me. Why don’t you just, why don’t you kind of introduce yourself, Rhea, cuz I think you bring such an interesting mix of background to 

Rhea Mader: this work.

Mm. Yeah. Thank you. I, I, as you were saying that, I was reminded of when we met in our doula training, and you reached out to me and you said, Hey, my mom’s name is R and I was like, oh, I love this person already, because there’s not very many people named Rhea. It’s true. I know. Two R’s. It’s amazing.

Yeah, so my background is training as an end of life coach, end of life doula, and an end of life educator through the Conscious Dying Institute. I have experience working in a nursing home as a chaplain, assistant chaplain associate. And then I also did a chaplaincy internship at a pretty big hospital.

I’m from Kansas. And it was. In Wichita, which is about an hour from where I live. So I’m in central Kansas, so I have a lot of, I kind of call myself like a I’m a very curious person. I think that I would be like a lifelong learner, if that’s a way to describe someone. That was definitely me.

I love how all of my pieces of. Work and training and even education from my interior architecture degree have come together to form some of the work that I do today and also keep me really curious and interested in a lot of aspects of end of life work. So I also have a background in Reiki.

I’m a reiki master, and then I’m an intuitive meditation teacher, instinctive meditation teacher. And as you said, we both have some work working as faculty for the Conscious Dying Institute. And then I also mentioned my my work, my prior work to. Diving into end of Life was working as a Healing Spaces interior architect.

So that’s kind of what I bring to the table. So, 

Diane Hullet: I you just bring a huge amount. What, what kind of like, that’s some about your training, but what do you, what thing you feel like led you personally into this work? Like why end of life field? 

Rhea Mader: Mm. So I always felt like I was kind of like I’ve, I’ve felt like I was I’ve been an outlier most of my life, right?

Like, I’ve always felt like I was kind of like the weird person. Which I think sometimes highly in highly sensitive people often feel like that. There are some background stories, so I have an experience with a baby being stillborn. And then my grandmother died of this disease called Supernuclear Palsy, and it was a really long death process.

Kind of like what you would see in someone with dementia and When I think back now, and even, even living through that experience was, it was hard to watch her die in that way. And and so in my, I. Reflecting of how I was as an interior architect and my, my interior design work, I’ve always kind of had this real compassionate approach to the work that I do and the way that we design spaces that offer not only like, you know, help in the way we live.

So part of my training as an interior designer was Lead. So I, I approached it from the sustainability aspect, but also one of my one of my certificates was certified living in place professional. And so I was really focused on how can I help people who maybe have some, some physical limitations, some other types of challenges, how can I help them live better?

And I did a lot of that work in senior living facilities and in homes. So, It, it kind of like was this merging when I ended up doing leaving that work and coming into end of life. So what, what really I think caused me to leave step away from my work in, in into your design, cuz I kind of sometimes feel this calling to like integrate it a little bit more than I have been in the past, past five years.

But I think it’s this real sense of. Not only offering more empathy in the way we are with one another, but in the way we design spaces for people to function in life. And, you know, I think about like the simplest things like pushing a baby through like a shopping mall in a, in a baby stroller or something like that.

But, you know, I, it’s. Doesn’t probably make sense to maybe some people listening, but I feel like there’s all these like threads that you and I both love, like sewing and stuff. And so I think like making this quilt and like piecing all of these things together that maybe don’t make sense to somebody else, but in my life, they have really created this incredible tapestry of what I bring to my work.

Diane Hullet: Yeah. When you talk about too, about spaces and how sort of things get in the way of how we inhabit those spaces, I think about your experiences in the hospital as a chaplain and, you know, just that, that experience of like dying in a hospital. Do you, do you wanna talk about that at all? 

Rhea Mader: Hmm. Yeah. Yes. I think that’s, that’s a perfect example too of how some of those ideas of.

My former work at In Interior Design and my work as a chaplain and how I got to serve, but also myself, like how it was, it was really hard for a highly sensitive person like myself to work in a hospital because there’s not a place of respite. And so when a lot of I would say at least half of my work was usually in the er.

A lot of the work was in like trauma rooms I C U units stuff like that. And. There’s not a lot of decompression that happens afterwards. And so, like for me, I was always searching for where do I go? And part of my internship was in the fall, and so I would get to go out and walk this courtyard that was in the middle of the actually it was like this little square in the middle of the building, this huge block.

And I would walk around out there and you know, say prayers like. Just breathe, be in nature. And so nature is very healing. And so that was my experience, but it’s, I look at it from the, from the patient experience too. And so we’re in these very sterile and cold environments that aren’t only in a way preventing of healing for.

The patient for the families, for the people who are serving the medical teams any way that happens, but it’s, it’s very, yeah, very limiting. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. What is there, are there any ways that can be better? Did you find, did you have moments that felt better than others? Or were you ever able to take family members out in the courtyard or remind them to go to those softer spaces as a way to be with the intensity of what was 

Rhea Mader: happening?

Yeah. And, and the chapel. So there, that’s you know, another option. But you know, so when we look at the scope of A building like this huge block on a, on the city block. And you think about the scope of the size of this building, right? And then there’s these teeny tiny little spaces. So this like little courtyard that’s as big as my, my backyard maybe.

And and then. A chapel, like a teeny tiny little chapel. And so I think we just need to incorporate this more, you know, like I’m looking at the plant behind you, and so how can we bring like elements of nature inside into the work that we’re, we’re doing too? And, and that definitely comes into how we serve people at end of life too.

So like how do you want to be in a space that feels healing to you, that feels You know, when I was doing interior design, I would always say like, how do you want the space to feel? Like it’s like giving you a hug. And so how can we create in that way? And I think that’s the work that we are bringing too, as end of life workers is, is like, how can we make this experience feel like it’s a big hug to you?

Diane Hullet: Yeah. What, you know what I think sometimes about whatever people’s religion or whatever their spiritual beliefs are, it, it seems like there are themes that come up for people, whether they’re, you know, lying in a more comfortable space at home or they’re, they’ve found themselves in a more, like you said, an ICU or a traumatic space, a trauma recovery kind of space.

What kinds of themes have you seen arise for people? Mm. 

Rhea Mader: So in that, do you mean like how, how people are struggling to like kind of come to this place of making meaning? Yeah. Yeah. I would say that a lot of it comes back to like what matters. And, and when I say that, I’m like, it’s a pretty big scope, right?

So there, there are people who really find a lot of relief and a lot of comfort in like systems. So like an organized religion. And that could bring them a lot of comfort there, there people could find a lot of comfort in a connection to nature. Maybe that’s, maybe that’s their spiritual connection to something bigger.

So, so there’s this idea of connecting to something bigger. And, and I also don’t want to overlook the idea that, you know, some people come to end of life and that is their belief that when. We die, there’s nothing else. And that’s fine too. So it’s ki it’s like meeting people wherever they’re at.

But I really think that it comes back to like, like did I matter? What, what meaning came from my life did I love and was I loved? 

Diane Hullet: Yeah, those are huge questions. Was I was I loved and did I love? Yeah. Do you see people wrestle with those and are they able to articulate that? Is it is a, is it a conversation people want to have?


Rhea Mader: Well that’s what I love so much about like the title of your podcast and your work is like, best Life, best Death. Because sometimes I think that How we move through life is indicative of how we can meet death. And and as we both know, you know, being educators in this, like how we are meeting death along the way.

So it’s not just like all of a sudden we come to this place of, of recognizing that we’re dying. I mean, we’re all dying. But, but then suddenly being like, okay, now I wanna be your friend. Like, now death, I wanna be your friend. So it, it’s not helpful. You know, to, to start having those conversations at the very end.

But but I think that when people are like diving into deep stuff I have to be careful cuz I, I really am a person who’s like, okay, let’s just go ride in, you know? But when, when you’re willing to meet those difficult things throughout life I think it opens up a different conversation at end of life.

So you’re more willing and able to have those conversations that are really difficult, not only with with someone like us who is serving like as a, as an end of life doula or. A chaplain or you know, any kind of support at end of life, but with your family, like a lot of people are, are having these conversations with me.

That, and I’m sure you’ve heard the same thing of like, you know, I, I don’t wanna burden, I don’t wanna burden my children, or I don’t wanna be a burden to someone else, like, I, it hurts me so much to think like people think that you know, cuz I think that we all want to help one another. And so how can we come to these places of meeting each other and asking those questions like, did I matter?

Do I matter? Did I love was, I loved that. When we’re meeting those throughout life, then we can meet them at death a lot. With, with a lot more ease too. Hmm. 

Diane Hullet: Oh, I, I, that is so, I love that because I mean, I think you’re saying like, sure, have the conversation at the end if you haven’t had it yet. But you’re also saying, look how this kind of internal questioning and external conversation can enrich what you’re doing now.

Rhea Mader: Absolutely. And I think that’s too where the work that we are doing as end of life and kind of like I, I kind of like to think that we as end of life, this end of life community that is really rising up. Oh, and it has been, but it’s really kind of like coming up now. Like I think that we are just asking people to like, take this thing and like spin it on its head and how can we look at this differently in this like, almost like a real radical way of, of saying like yeah, we’re gonna meet this at the end, right?

But, but what does it look like now? And how can we change these systems? And be part of a change that is gonna make this different in, in the way we live our life, but also in the way we die. So we’re having these conversations the whole entire time, not just at death. 

Diane Hullet: I was, I was struck the other day by talking to a hospice volunteer and he said, you know, the thing about.

Like hospice, volunteer work or doula work. He said the thing is they, that people don’t actually need us. To die, you know, they, they are going to die. They’re in the dying process or, or at a terminal diagnosis, and yet there’s, there’s such an enhancement that that experience might be possibly with the help of an outside role, possibly just with a cracking open of your own heart.

Right. And a willingness to kind of say the thing that you’re afraid to say possibly. Because I, I think of these big questions was, I loved and. Did I love? And I think, well, how do you know? 

Rhea Mader: Yeah. I love, I love that what, what you just said. It makes me think too about how, you know, I think for gosh, what do I wanna say?

Like that idea of job security. So like, we want everybody to need us, right? But we wanna create these environments in this like cultural way of being that I. I know how to serve my family. Like, you know how to serve your family. My, my cousins people know how to serve their people like, so that we’re, we are making this real change.

I. But I will add this little piece. So sometimes like I might go to a therapist to help me navigate some things that I’m not able to recognize for myself. And and I think that sometimes what we bring as doulas to this work is the, the objective. Like we’re able to come in with some different objective, like like a non-judgmental aspect that helps.

Some people navigate in a different way and have a conversation that they might not have because they don’t quite feel comfortable enough with someone else. So I was actually meeting I have met recently with a person and they’re, they’ve lived a pretty hard life and are having some real challenges at meeting death.

And it’s been, it’s been difficult. There’s there’s a lot of conversation there. And when I first met this person I asked them, so, how do you feel about dying? And I, I firmly believe that I was the only one that had asked this. And she said, I’m, I’m ready. But I am afraid of like, what is this gonna look like?

And I said, oh, that’s a great question. You know, let’s ask your doctor. So they were having a care team meeting that day. And I, I said and you know, I think as medical, the medical team seems to like we, it’s easy for us to get into our silos of work and and meet some of this stuff like as a checklist and I said, you know, one of the questions that came up when we were talking earlier was like, what, what does this process look like?

And it was from you know, I don’t wanna divulge too much information, but what, from a perspective of ending, ending some treatments and it got like the, the answer that she received was very Medicalized in a way that was like, okay, like what we are asking to be is to be met as a human. So speak human to me, like in a way that we are having a conversation between our hearts, not from your head.

To my heart cuz it’s not landing here. And, and I think that’s the work that we do too, is that we walk into these situations and we’re able to, to say the word dying and death when other people are afraid to. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. In that situation, it’s almost like you were, you were offering to be a bridge between what the patient had spoke and what the medical team was able to respond with, which was a little too, a little too cut and dried.

Right. Right. And yeah, I think, oh, my heart goes out to all sides of that. 

Rhea Mader: Right, right. And that’s, that’s the thing too that I think we, we need to acknowledge. We had a last night, so I, I’m teaching the The Conscious Dying Coach Course and the Sacred Passage dual course right now. And we had a we had a lovely conversation last night.

It was just like, so Expansive. And we talked a lot about what does it look like, what does death look like in a hospital? Like, what does it look like in some of these systems, like nursing homes and stuff like that. And, you know, I’m, I’m so lucky that I get to learn from, with people from so many different perspectives.

So we have all kinds of people that come through the institute in Know, nursings nursing people doctors, people who have no medical background at all. And so there’s this real mixing and merging. And, and what I loved about the conversation last night was we had someone who wa came from a nursing background and then an intensive nursing background.

And they were saying, you know, this, this is really hard for me. And it brought up a lot of emotion. Because she’s there to serve in the same way. Like we all come to this with so much compassion and so much empathy, but because of the systems that we work in, we don’t always get to function in that way.

And so I do wanna recognize that there, that I don’t think intentional harm has ever meant. Right. 

Diane Hullet: Right. I think that’s true. I think that’s true. And there’s time, you know, there’s like a, a level of speed with which a lot of the medical community has to move through their day that is, is simply fast and it’s hard to drop into full empathy.

I mean, I think it’s an exceptional person who can quickly change gears like that and drop into that kind of space with someone. 

Rhea Mader: Right. And I recognize that too, as in my work as the in my chaplain internship, internship at the hospital because you’re always on call. And so I was getting a page and then I’m getting a page to go to a, like a, a different floor and then I’m getting good page to go back to the er.

And so, you know, that’s why I feel really blessed in my work as In my, in my own work where I have the flexibility to create the spaciousness as a consultant to do the work that I need to do in order to help the person by dropping in and like, you know, like I don’t have to be somewhere in five minutes.

And so I’m sorry I can’t, you know, we can’t really drop into this conversation and it, it is a real hindrance, but at the same time, like, you know, Blessings to all the people who are doing the work that they’re doing and, and keep doing it. Yeah. I’m 

Diane Hullet: guessing that another theme that comes up that you’ve seen is like, like regret and gratitude, right?

I’m guessing those both play a lot in, I feel like gratitude is kind of like we hear a lot about it right now. There’s, you know, keep a gratitude journal and this kind of thing and, and, and maybe it gets oversimplified to some degree, but, and I also find in my own life, That gratitude really does play this powerful role.

And I just, I wonder if you have thoughts on how that shows up for people? Yeah. Yes. 

Rhea Mader: So I think that is you know, when I think about our work as coaches, as doulas, as And my role as a chaplain and really being able to drop into these conversations with people, especially at the nursing home, like, I loved that because I, it was a real relational exchange versus sometimes transactional in the hospital.

And I don’t wanna say that, that, like, that’s my approach, but it’s just like part of a system, right. I think that when we get to have these really rich, meaningful conversations with people and we’re asking when we’re dropping into these places of this deep listening, people are able to reflect a little bit more.

And as that reflection of when, when we’re able to think back to the past of like maybe regret or I. Forgiveness is a big one that comes up forgiveness. And a lot of times I think that is what we hold for ourselves too. How can we forgive ourselves for the things that we did or didn’t do? How can we forgive ourselves for not loving ourselves enough?

You know, somebody recently said to me, and I don’t remember if it was a Buddhist saying but it was something like if I asked you to. List all the things that you loved. How long would you, how long would your list be before you listed yourself? And I was like, oh, that’s so powerful, so powerful. And I think that so many people could relate to that in the way that we serve.

You know? We’re very giving people in in these professions of service. But but I think that that’s normal for a lot of people to ask, and a lot of people to always want to give to others, but then put themselves last. And so I think forgiveness shows up a lot. And I think, you know, Back to this best life, best death when we, when we are living in this place of dropping in.

And this is what I love about my meditation background too. So and my training was incredible. I trained with Lauren Roche and he has this way of inviting inviting us to how, how do you feel in love with life? And I don’t like, my source of feeling in love with life is being out on the trail, like walking and just like being in nature, like heading out on the trail with my dog.

Animals, babies. So when we are pausing throughout life to notice, you know, like the flowers and the birds and the, the little things like pausing for those moments to like really listen to what your kids are saying and. I think that’s what helps us live in these moments of gratitude for the little tiny things in life that really make a big difference.

Diane Hullet: Beautiful. I love how you said that. I love, I love bringing up the little things cuz I think sometimes the big things take care of themselves while we’re watching the little things. I don’t know, maybe that’s too pat of an answer, but, yeah. Well, thanks so much Rhea for everything you’ve brought and you can find out more about Rhea’s work at Conscious Living Conscious dying.com.

Do you wanna say anything about 

Rhea Mader: what you offer there? Yeah, so the site isn’t actually like, I mean, it’s up. You can go there and visit it, but there’s nothing. It’s all gonna be like coming soon. I’m super excited. It’s, it’s taken me about a year to arrive at this point of Launching this website and I’m really excited about it.

It will be a compilation of a bunch of stuff for, for kind of like your, your work, best life, best death. So it’s gonna be some educational stuff, some stuff about how we gather, gathering community. Collaborations. I’m really excited about it. 

Diane Hullet: Fabulous. I love it. Yeah. Best life. Best. F Conscious living.

Conscious dying. I think we’re a, we’re sister organizations for sure. You’re the, you’re the rebel in Kansas. Bringing it all. Well, thanks so much for coming on. Yeah, thank 

Rhea Mader: you. 

Diane Hullet: You’ve been listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast, and I’m Diane Hallett, and as I said, you can find out more about my work at Best Life, best death.com.

Thanks so much for listening.

Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.

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