Death is a mystery. And while the question of what happens after we die may be left to philosophers and spiritual leaders, what happens in the moment of death is something else. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Dr. B.J. Miller — a hospice doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, and former executive director of Zen Hospice Project — opened up about the moment of death. As a hospice doctor, he has seen death up close many times.
“I’ve been around people who are just about to die, bodies that have just died,” Dr. Miller told Oprah, “and there is this lingering sense.”
A Passion for End of Life Care Born From A Brush With Death
Dr. Miller chose to dedicate his life to end-of-life care following his own brush with death. His near-death experience occurred when he was a sophomore at Princeton University. Out on the town with a few friends, Dr. Miller decided to climb up one of the city’s railcars. This turned out to be a foolhardy decision. Once on top of the car, he was struck with the railcar’s electrical current. The incident nearly killed him. He survived, but not before losing three of his limbs.
“Parts of me died early on,” he said in a recent talk, reported by the New York Times. “And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around this fact, and I tell you it has been a liberation to realize you can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left.”
Hospice Doctor at The Zen Hospice Project
This transformative experience led Dr. Miller to dedicate his life’s work to palliative care and hospice. At 40 years old, he joined the Zen Hospice Project, a small organization that began as a response to the AIDS crisis, as executive director and hospice doctor. With him at the helm, the organization grew in scope with its primary mission to reclaim end-of-life care as a human experience as opposed to a medical experience. In this role, Dr. Miller gained national attention, appearing in numerous publications about his organization’s original take on the end of life.
A Sacred and Gorgeous Moment
It is within this context that Dr. Miller spoke with Oprah about his experiences. “There’s a lingering,” he told her in their interview.
Dr. Miller, evoking his own experience as a hospice doctor, describes death as a “sacred and gorgeous moment.”
“I’ve been around folks who, I’ll be sitting there talking with their family and we’re having a conversation, and the person dies in the middle of a conversation. And it’s seamless,” Miller says. “It’s almost gorgeously…mundane. It’s just, they were here and now they’re gone. There’s a moment where it’s just so matter-of-fact. That’s its sort of charm. It’s its beauty.”
“It’s such a profound, stunning moment to see the body finally as a shell and devoid of that person,” he says. “In that moment of transition around the body, you’re really in touch with the continuum of life, that life is proceeding. That individual is gone, but life goes on.”