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Volunteer Spotlight: Al Thomas

Renowned publisher and member of the Compassion & Choices African American Leadership Council, Al Thomas channels his experiences with loss into actively helping others understand the importance of advance planning.

“I had to go through this in order to be receptive to Compassion & Choices,” said Al Thomas of his mother’s difficult death in 2011. Thomas, a member of our African American Leadership Council (AALC), serves as publisher, president and CEO of the South Jersey Journal. He is also a member of the legendary National Newspaper Publishers Association, the largest and most influential Black-owned media resource in America

Thomas and his wife brought his mother, who had various health issues including severe, painful bedsores, into their home to care for her once she was on hospice. “When I look back on it, I didn’t know too much about having hospice in the house,” he recalls. It became very challenging for me as the oldest son and, you know, you really want to do everything to keep your mother alive. But she was suffering. She was ready to die, was really in pain, but I just couldn’t come to grips with that.”

He believes a better understanding of hospice would have helped him and his mother immensely. “There were a lot of things I would have done differently,” Thomas says. “And I believe a lot of African Americans look at hospice the way I used to. It’s relatively new in our community. But the way things are heading, more and more people are going to have to set up hospice at home to take care of mom and dad. And we have to be mentally prepared for all the issues and challenges of that.” 

There were other hard lessons for Thomas surrounding the loss of his mother. Though she had been separated from his father for 40 years, they weren’t legally divorced, which led to conflict and complications. “I had to get power of attorney because my father started to become involved even though he wasn’t in my mother’s life. It got very ugly for me and my father.” Thomas says. “There are other African American families in my situation, where mom and dad aren’t divorced but haven’t been together for many years, and that’s very difficult to deal with. Unfortunately my father has also passed away, and we never really overcame our rift. But I did what I had to do for my mother.” 

Thomas also lost his brother this past May to COVID-19. He was 54 years old. 

Instead of dwelling on these difficult losses, Thomas has turned his experiences into an opportunity to educate others about end-of-life issues so they hopefully have an easier path. “When I Iearned about Compassion & Choices at a National Medical Association convention, I was really passionate about sharing it with the African American community because it really took an emotional, psychological and physical toll on me, seeing my mother dying. Now I tell people my story, what everyone should do to be prepared. Don’t be the way I was, because to this day, it still has a major impact on me. I was being selfish in not wanting my mother to die. I wanted her to live, and she was telling me she wanted to die. I know a lot of daughters and sons probably face the same thing. It was very painful for me, and I don’t want anyone to go through this the way I did, I don’t care who they are,” he says. 

“It would have made things so much easier if I had sat down with my mother and had all this worked out with her. Or talked to my father.” says Thomas, whose involvement with the AALC includes outreach to the public, faith leaders and lawmakers. “We have to educate the African American community about having a will and having a directive. This wasn’t taught. I want to help people be much better prepared than I was. And if you’re compassionate and you believe in helping people, you can’t lose.”