“If my five-year-old is dying of leukemia, what does this mean about the purpose of life?”
That is the kind of question Michael Dale Kimmel ’80 encounters in his work. “How do you make sense of something like this?” he asks. “Either you shut your heart forever, or it’s open in a way it’s never been before.”
Kimmel’s job is to help family members connect with one another—and, finally, to let go.
A licensed psychotherapist who previously worked with children and their families at San Diego Hospice and Palliative Care, one of the largest hospice programs in the country, Kimmel is now in private practice, specializing in grief and loss.
“Sometimes at the end of life, families get a chance to say the things to each other that they’ve been holding back,” Kimmel says. “Like the five-year-old boy who was dying of a brain tumor and said to his sister, ‘Thanks for fighting the battles for me that I couldn’t fight. It was so great that you stood up for me when the other kids laughed.’”
As Kimmel explains, people near death tend to connect with the real issues, to focus in on what truly matters. “Like nothing else, the approach of the end of life stimulates that inner search for the meaning of life,” he says.
Kimmel’s work with death and dying began in Los Angeles in 1988, when he volunteered to consult with people who had AIDS, and with their families. “I saw them come in healthy, then come in sick, and then die,” he recalls. “Some were children with AIDS, some were parents. But contrary to what one might think, my work with death and dying is the most meaningful and powerful work I do. It truly enriches my life and has continually stimulated my joie de vivre over the years, encouraging me to be really present in the moment. None of us can make any assumptions about tomorrow.”