Lifelong New Jerseyan Reverend Gillian McAllister, a nondenominational minister since the ‘90s, “really wanted to get involved in something that helped” once she retired in 2011. Her training as a nurse, career as a bodily injury adjuster in the insurance industry and the difficult cancer deaths of several loved ones – including her husband in 2008 – drew her to volunteer in hospice care and with Compassion & Choices.
“My personal spiritual belief is that birth and death are the same; they’re transitions within the infinity of the Divine. That, for me, provides a tremendous amount of peace,” she says. But she realizes that comfort is not universal. “Someone with whom I had been working for over a year died a month ago alone with his fears and concerns. He had reached a point where he wanted to die but couldn’t have that conversation with his family, as they were not yet at a point where they could let go so both sides were hurting terribly. It was an uncomfortable conversation that each was afraid to bring out openly for fear of hurting the other.”
Rev McAllister also saw the fear and denial surrounding death while working in a terminal care ward in nursing school. “It made such a dramatic impression on me. People couldn’t simply say to each other, ‘I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to be in pain. I’m going to miss you, but I’ll remember all the times we had.’ That kind of conversation couldn’t occur, and it made their illness and approaching death so much more difficult and lonely. This is why I was drawn to Compassion & Choices. With C & C, we are able to bring the information to people before they find themselves in a terminal situation and give them time to both consider it and discuss it with their families so that if the situation presents itself there is understanding and communication upon which to draw.”
She has since testified before a Senate committee in support of death with dignity in New Jersey, spoken to legislators and informed others about the end-of-life choice movement. “I’ve been very thrilled, quite honestly, to have found C&C and to be able to participate in this work. Being able to talk to people, to open up the conversation, to support their feelings and fears and desires, I think is probably one of the most important gifts we can give them in their journey through life and eventual death.”