“It’s like going to a good Broadway show. You know it’s going to end and you soak it up as much as you can. Why does it not apply to death and living?”
BY DANIEL GAITAN | firstname.lastname@example.org
Patient advocate and storyteller Kimberly Paul is living her dream by sharing the gospel of death.
“End of life and death get a really bad rap,” said Paul, host of the Death by Design podcast and author of Bridging the Gap: Lessons from the Dying. “I’m on this rampage to help people wake up!”
Paul has devoted her life to radically changing the way Americans view life and death.
“We get caught up in the minutia in life and forget that miracles happen every day right in front of us,” she said. “The only things you take with you when you die are love, connections and memories. You can’t take money.”
Taking The Long Way
Paul, 45, didn’t expect to spend most of her professional life dealing with death.
After graduating from Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1994, Paul began working on the set of Saturday Night Live, casting for CBS daytime programming and freelancing for several production companies in New York City.
While working in the entertainment industry, Paul said she was captivated by the creative process of developing and telling stories.
For the last 18 years, however, she has been telling very different stories in far less glamorous spaces.
When her grandmother died in the late 1990s, Paul returned to North Carolina. Her television programs were on hiatus.
“My grandmother died in hospice care, so I looked up the local hospice hoping to volunteer for a couple month,” she recalled. “I started working with them thinking it would be a six-month gig.”
Those months turned into years, because Paul fell in love with the stories she heard at the bedsides of the dying.
“It’s really funny how you end up where you’re supposed to be, and you’re so unaware of it,” Paul said. “I started capturing these stories.”
After four years at Lower Cape Fear Hospice in Wilmington, she was promoted as a leader in the outreach and communications department. There, she produced stories showing how hospice patients and their loved ones chose to face death and disease.
She created the award-winning multimedia “Begin the Conversation” campaign in 2008 to encourage locals to talk about their care preferences; she was the driving force behind the program until her departure in 2016.
Selected to speak at TEDxAirlie that same year, Paul’s presentation focused on her passion for educating people of every health stage about death.
“If you knew you were dying would you be kinder? Would you love more deeply? Would you forgive quicker? Well, I have a secret to tell you: you are dying. We all are,” Paul told the crowd.
After the Tedx Talk, Paul knew she needed to practice what she had preached.
“After 17 years in hospice, I started feeling empty. I started feeling that I was not applying some of the life lessons I learned from the dying, and I was struggling,” Paul said.
She also knew that she wasn’t cut out for an eight-to-five job at a corporate hospice.
“I wanted to promote choice at the end of life, and I wanted to empower individuals to reclaim death and dying from the medical community,” Paul said.
Her new mission: to help others identify their end of life wishes and advocate for them.
“I had been arrogant, thinking hospice is the only way,” Paul reflected.
A Free Spirit
Last year, Paul committed to writing a book and growing her podcast. She cashed-in her retirement to finance the projects.
“Everyone was flipping out, of course,” Paul laughed.
Paul spoke with Life Matters Media as she was packing up belongings from her home and preparing to move into an RV.
“I’m going state to state to really do some micro-education about end of life, loss and grief one-on-one,” she said. “I hope that one day it might be a macro effect. I want to live. I’m finally applying the life lessons I learned from the dying.”
She has no patience for corporate America, lofty job titles and the pursuit of wealth.
“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” Paul said. “It’s about living and not fearing the unknown.”
She likened this past year to a spiritual awakening — especially now that she self-published Bridging the Gap, a collection of life lessons she learned while working with patients.
“I feel so responsible in a positive way to share these stories that have deeply affected me enough to cash in my retirement at 45 years old and walk away from a six-figure salary,” Paul said. “I don’t think I’m extraordinary. I finally feel peace inside. I’m creating a legacy for some of the people in the book who thought they were going to die and that their stories would die with them.”
When the new author says she doesn’t care about money, she’s serious.
“I made $8,000 last year, but I was the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” she laughed. “People think I’m crazy, and half the time I am. I don’t need a house to be happy. I don’t need that $200 dress. I’m O.K. with living in a 24-foot RV and going town to town to tell these stories.”
When it comes to her own mortality, Paul isn’t worried. Even if she was, she’s far too busy to dwell on it.
“I feel like I’m on a mission, like Indiana Jones. He tried to preserve artifacts, and I’m trying to normalize the end of life so people can make their plans and live.”