248 SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018 | BETHESDAMAGAZINE.COM
“God clearly has a sense of humor,”
Hanford says. “I’m living the book I
THE DIAGNOSIS CAME out of nowhere.
Hanford felt like she was in good shape,
taking water aerobics classes three times
a week at the YMCA in Bethesda and
walking her two rescue dogs every day.
“I was feeling great, really peppy,” she
says. She’d recently taken her grandson
to Canada to celebrate his 10th birthday.
Her hospice work and activism, along
with her friends, two grown children
and six grandchildren, kept her busy.
She’d travel to board meetings in Minnesota for the Collegeville Institute for
Ecumenical and Cultural Research, and
was an active member of the Cosmos
Club in Washington, D.C.
“I worked out with a personal trainer,
and 10 days later I not only find out I
have cancer, but serious cancer,” Hanford says. Her son, Troy, was with her
at the appointment with a pulmonolo-gist; her daughter, Tania Neild, was on
the phone from her home in Bronxville,
New York. “I was sitting in a chair, pale
white,” Hanford says. “My son and I were
both totally quiet. It was hard to imagine
going from the peak of health to cancer.
I’m usually Miss Chatty, but when I get
hit hard, I just absorb.”
This can’t happen, she remembers
thinking, I need more time for my dreams.
She had a book to finish, she says, and she
still wanted to get end-of-life care information into hospital rooms so patients
would have easy access to it. Within a
few hours of finding out that she was sick,
Hanford’s strong religious faith—and the
lessons she’d learned about preparing for
death—helped calm her.
“You have to play the cards you’re
dealt,” she says. “My cancer wasn’t
caught early. I’m not going to buy into
the fantasy of miracle cures.”
Hanford’s interest in life’s final jour-
ney came from personal experience.
She and Bill took care of his parents for
11 years when her in-laws lived nearby
in Bethesda. Her mother-in-law’s last
two months were spent in hospice care,
which made a strong impression on Han-
ford. “It was lovely and peaceful, and she
died with grace,” she recalls. Hanford,
who’d been working as a development
director at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day
School in Washington, D.C., which her
kids attended, began volunteering as
a hospice counselor in 1999. She later
joined the board of Hospice Care D.C.,
now known as Capital Caring, as well as
the board of The Washington Home &
As she spoke with families about the
impending death of a loved one, Han-
ford saw their denial firsthand. In 2015,
she developed a five-part course called
The Hope Initiative, which was designed
to support people making end-of-life
decisions, and she later helped Suburban
Hospital and caregiving groups adopt it.
“A friend’s father was 97 and in the hos-
pital,” she says. “I suggested hospice care
at home. She said, ‘Oh, Mona, no one’s
suggested he’s dying.’” By the time the
doctor leveled with the family, the man
only received hospice care for three days
before he passed away.
“That is such a pattern,” Hanford says.
“I’m trying to change all that.”
As a first-time author, Hanford’s
timing is fortunate. She’s tapping into a
wave of interest in end-of-life discussions,
prompted by aging baby boomers. Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist Ellen Good-
man continues to see a growing interest
in The Conversation Project, which she
co-founded in 2010 after failing to find
out about her mother’s wishes before her
death. About 70,000 people in 30 coun-
tries have participated in the Death Over
Dinner movement since it began in 2013.
Now celebrity chefs host “death dinners,”
where people share their wishes for their
final days over a good meal.
Hanford welcomes these efforts.
According to a 2005 AARP survey, only
10 to 20 percent of respondents had put
their wishes in writing or talked to doc-
tors or family members about them. In
their research for the book, Hanford and
Hand found that almost no one is brave
enough to sidle up to an aging parent and
ask how they’d like their death handled.
Hanford says despite surveys indicating
that 75 percent of people do not want to
“God clearly has a sense of humor,”
Hanford says. “I’m living the book I wrote.”
Hanford, pictured at
home, wrote The Grace-
ful Exit with her friend
Adrienne Hand (left).