A Map for the Journey

A Map for Navigating the Journey to the End

By Evangelina Holvino, Ed.D

Here is a way of thinking about our journey to the end of our lives – death – the inevitable event that we all face sooner or later.

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GateI developed this framework because of my own need, as a 65 year old adult child of an advanced aged mother, as I struggled to make sense of her dying. Looking back, my father’s journey to the end, earlier and different, was not so good either and my ability to support them both in their journeys to the end was not so great. I want a gentler, better journey for myself and my loved ones. And I believe that the only way to get even close to a gentler journey is to be prepared. I wish I would have had access to this (or a similar) framework – a kind of map for navigating the journey to the end – at the beginning of my parents’ journeys. I am now using it to prepare for my own journey and I hope it will be of help to others.

In this framework, the journey is envisioned as six major gates we will pass through on our way to the end. A gate is an entry to a space; gates may try to control the entry or exit of individuals, but they really can’t. The same applies with the gates of the journey to the end; one may want to control the passage, but eventually, we’ll have to walk through them, so we better do it with awareness and intention. These are gates to different types of energy, different capabilities, different tasks and requirements, different life forces and ways of being, that we will encounter when we enter the spaces that these gates open into. We don’t know how long we will stay in each of these spaces. But, we know that once we enter, it is very hard to go back. And if we happen to go back, it’s only a matter of time, when we will be back at the gate we had just left.

Culture and language, like religion, impact how we understand – conceptually, emotionally and literally – what is happening in each of these gates and how we journey through them. This framework was developed based on the experience of people living in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. In other locations and times this framework may not fit the cultural learning, religious traditions, or spiritual beliefs of its people. Regardless, it will be a rarity if your medical team or any of your caretakers, who are not your chosen or natural family, has any inkling of how your culture and language is shaping your beliefs and actions about health, illness, death and dying, especially as you move through the gates of the journey to the end. You must start talking about this now!

Many experts have written excellent books and articles on the topic of death and dying, which have comforted, inspired and influenced me. (See this website for a list of favorites.) This framework is based on Dr. Dennis McCullough’s book, My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing “Slow Medicine,” the Compassionate Approach to Caring for your Aging Loved Ones (2009, Harper). I thought this book was so helpful and rich that it merited a concise overview to guide those who may initially not have the time to read it, but can still benefit from the “stations” the book describes to help guide the difficult journey ahead. This framework is divided in three parts: the first briefly describes the signals that tell that you or your loved one is crossing this particular gate. The middle section identifies the key tasks you will face and should address when you enter the space marked by this gate. The last column identifies resources that can help you with the tasks and feelings that arise when you are in the space marked by this gate. I have expanded on McCullough’s (and others work) by bringing my own lens and experiences. I have had valuable feedback and perspective from colleagues but take sole responsibility for the content.

© Evangelina Holvino, 2013