Jane DiGiacomo: From Hamptons’ Lawyer to Small-Town Hospice Director

Jane DiGiacomo’s life story could easily be a film. The credits roll as she crosses the western prairies in her 31-foot Airstream camper, new husband and young child in tow, seeking out the important things in life and leaving law and a lot of baggage behind. But DiGiacomo is not an actress. She’s the real deal: a confident, happy woman who fearlessly gave up what most people spent their whole lives working towards, financial success and prestige, to experience the smaller pleasures in life: “I’m not special, we all are remarkable, we just have to see it in ourselves.”

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Jane, Miles and the mega-cool Airstream

Always attracted to understanding life’s fundamental problems, DiGiacomo studied philosophy at Barnard and was aiming for a PhD. But she fell into law when her father thought this a ridiculous plan. “He said he would only pay for me to go to ‘professional’ school so I guess this planted the seed that I probably should find a career where I could support myself.”

Paying her own way in the end, she attended the University of Minnesota, transferring in her third year to Columbia Law. From there, DiGiacomo worked as a litigation associate for three years in Manhattan. But city life was not really her thing, so she moved to East Hampton, Long Island, where she joined a regional law firm. “I did more independent, directly rewarding work and started building my own client base.”

After two years, DiGiacomo had risen up the ranks and was on serious partnership track. And then came what she calls “The Big Pause”.

In the midst of a divorce, DiGiacomo found herself at a crossroads. She started meditating regularly with zen sangha – studying with Peter Matthiessen – something that became a very important part of her life.

Her zen practice led her to take a leave of absence to sort out her feelings. The move shocked her partner champions at the firm: “I made no promises, I told them I was going away to do a meditation retreat for at least three months, maybe more, and that maybe I wouldn’t come back … It was kind of a big deal,” she adds with a chuckle.

She easily rented her small East Hampton house over the summer and headed north to join the monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist Monastery in Nova Scotia for four months. “I got a really good picture of what that life would be like should I go in that direction. But it didn’t matter what I did. My neurosis followed me. I was still going to have to deal with my need to be valued and achieve external confirmation. I knew I had to go back to life and face it, I couldn’t run away anymore.”

Picking up where she left off, DiGiacomo rejoined the firm “continuing in high-powered mode.” And then, when she was 33, she got pregnant from a short-term relationship just around the same time she made partner at the firm. In addition to work, she dove into school and community activities to build up her life in East Hampton.

But keeping busy at work and in the community was not enough. “Even though I was doing well financially, the fact that it was just a means to an end was becoming really evident to me … I considered starting my own firm but this wasn’t something I was ready to take on as single mom. So I started working out of our smaller office where I had the chance to focus on local clients and test the idea of going out on my own. It was going well, and then I met Miles.”

Her life turned upside down as she travelled out West to see her new steady. She fell in love, not only with him, but also the expansiveness of the western landscape. “I knew it was going to be difficult to stay where I was.” Soon after Jane met the love of her life, her mother developed terminal cancer, a life event that opened DiGiacomo’s eyes to the truth – life is too short, don’t compromise.  “When she died I knew I was done.”

She took some time off to extract herself from her life: “Mom’s death readjusted my perspective. Having Miles in my life freed me to consider other options as he’s a computer programmer and able to work anywhere.” The plan was set. At 39-years old, she quit her job, they sold their respective homes and bought an oh-so-cool Airstream to traverse the country looking for a home. “We pretty much took off. We literally did not know where we were going.” The idea was to spend time in a few towns where they thought they might like to live.

Ultimately, Nelson, British Colombia fit the bill perfectly.

“It was no small thing because we had to immigrate. I couldn’t work for the first four years and instead stayed home with Kell and our two new children, Ziji and Elka.” Once their immigration status was resolved, DiGiacomo looked into becoming a small town law practitioner but was overwhelmed by the commitment involved: several exams, followed by a badly paid 6-month apprenticeship, commuting every day, and leaving kids in day care. “Then I realized I didn’t have to do that. Being successful financially was not what I needed. It was liberating that I didn’t care anymore.”

Once she had accepted this fact, the next steps were easy. She decided to earn a living doing something she really enjoyed and cared about deeply. And so she started looking more closely at community services and not-for-profit work. She is currently the Executive Director of the Nelson and District Hospice Society, a community organization provides volunteer hospice services.  In that capacity, she also works closely with Kalein Hospice Society, which has an expansive mission including encouraging dialog about how we create care for the dying and how this influences how we live our own lives. DiGiacomo is drawn to the work because it centers around questions with which she has struggled her whole life “Why are we here? What are we doing with our lives day-to-day?”

For DiGiacomo part of the answer has been coming face-to-face with one’s own death. She does not mean this in a morbid way but rather living the reality of knowing how precious our lives are. Her advice? Don’t get lost in the dream of achieving something. Get out there and do it. That’s what will make it all worthwhile.

Jane DiGiacomo’s Tips for Success:

  • If you are a working mom feeling torn about where you are spending your time, but also feeling like you are not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom, just do it (if you can). Spend some time with your kids. It will change who you are. It may encourage you to make different decisions about your career and future.
  • Once you no longer prioritize money, power and prestige, it’s a relief. You realize what’s important and it’s not that stuff. It’s really not about THE STUFF.

Discussion

Are your possessions, salary and prestige holding you back from finding true happiness?

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