The First Day

Sixteen well-trained, yet nervous Delta Hospice volunteers were ready to serve as caring hands extending into the community. They had been prepared to offer physical, emotional, spiritual and educational support to those living with a life-threatening illness and their families.

One of those volunteers had experienced a personal nightmare of watching a friend in need of palliative care die in an impersonal and medically-oriented setting of a hospital emergency department. When she considered an ad in the paper requesting volunteers for the hospice training program she was apprehensive as to whether she would be up for the task.

Throughout the training, she tackled her doubts and fears. When she was at her very first visit at a family’s home, she found herself thinking, “This is just right, being here, doing this ~ comforting people ~ neighbour helping neighbour”.

There is Nothing to Fix

Soon after I became a hospice volunteer, our bereavement counsellor gave a talk on grief at one of our Monday evening support meetings. She invited interested volunteers to join a training she was offering for bereavement telephone volunteers. The program involved phoning relatives and friends of patients who had died. The purpose of the call was to try to help ease the pain and isolation that is often part of the grief process. This seemed like a good way to enrich my hospice experience, so I signed up. That was a year and a half ago.

I have learned that grief work is not “repair” work. There is nothing to “fix”. Whether it is the bereaved, a dying patient, or myself, the greatest healing occurs in a space where all the fear and anger and guilt and confusion can be exposed and acknowledged and accepted. Inherent in loving is losing and inherent in losing is grief, and in grief is enormous potential for growth and healing. Grief is one of the emotions that makes us human, and connects us all in shared experience, as survivors.

Being of service to loved ones as well as to the patients themselves has helped to make my hospice practice more “holistic”. I see that I am here to serve the entire hospice community ~ patients, family and friends, staff and other volunteers, and myself. And as Rachel Naomi Remen says in Kitchen Table Wisdom, “Over and over again, I experience the gift of people willing to open their hearts to me. And each time I feel blessed.”

Don’t Talk to Strangers

If Grace had followed that advice, she never would have known Mary. They were strangers when they met in April. Just six months later, Mary said a final good-bye to her good friend Grace. During that brief period of time, Mary, a volunteer hospice worker, provided intimate care and support to Grace. She was also an important source of information and a compassionate shoulder for all of Grace’s daughters and sons.

The last thing Grace wanted when she was told her cancer was back was having a stranger come into her home. But when she and Mary met for the first time, they hit it off. As Grace deteriorated, the family had questions and concerns. Mary and the hospice counsellors gave them the concise, practical information they needed. “Gentle massage alleviates pain in the legs.” “No you do not have to call 911 if Grace stops breathing”. When Grace eventually drew her last breath, her beloved family surrounded her. Mary was there just hours before to hold her hand and touch her cheek. Then her sons and daughters told their mom it was okay for her to go. And she did.

Today, Mary has a new patient. The two of them share stories. And some of these stories include Grace’s perspective on life. Because that’s what Grace bequeathed to Mary, who met her as a stranger and left her as a friend.