Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What I Learned From Hospice and the Dying

Last fall I signed up to volunteer for a local hospice organization. After a few days of training, I began making regular companionship visits to clients, usually in their homes, hoping I could offer some measure of support and comfort to dying patients and their families. 

My patients, or friends as I like to call them, have been unique and diverse, men and women from a vast array of distinctive backgrounds. Some of my hospice friends are in the expected autumn of old age, grinding out their final months in ways they probably anticipated, and some of them are middle-aged, people who at the pinnacle of their lives find themselves suddenly facing a shocking and unfair twilight that has fallen on them far too quickly. 

It sounds cliché, and it probably is, but when I reflect on the relatively short time I have worked with my hospice friends, I know I have taken away far more than I have given. After all, how could you not view it as an unparalleled gift of generosity, when people are willing to share with you the most poignant, vulnerable, and important moments of their lives? I often feel like the hours I spend volunteering for hospice provide me with a sense of satisfaction beyond what I have earned, but I suppose life is like that - sometimes rewarding us with more than we deserve, and sometimes with less. 

Through the experiences I have had working with terminally ill people, I have grown, and each patient, each dying friend, regardless of sickness, age, or demeanor, has been a mentor and a teacher.

The dying have taught me to be attentive - to blooming flowers, to cracks in the sidewalk, to the sound of my own breathing.

The dying have taught me to be grateful - for the feeling of the sun on my skin, for the smiles of strangers, for the legs I have to carry me.

The dying have taught me to be open - to the gentleness of touch, to the beauty of silence, to whatever each day offers, or takes away, from me.

The dying have taught me to be brave - to face pain and loss with strength, to face fear with an open heart, to face love with courage.

We never know how the world will challenge us or down which paths our lives will travel. We only know that things won't always turn out the way we planned, and we have little to depend on to get us through, except each other. I'm grateful to have had this lesson, among others, reinforced by my hospice experience, and I'm overjoyed to have reached a point in my life when, for a little while at least, I can be truly present in the lives of friends, family, and sometimes, strangers.

I've taken a little time away from the daily grind to chase a dream or two, but by this time next year, maybe I'll be working full-time again, earning a living the old-fashioned way. It really is strange, the way things turn. Regardless of how it all works out, I can't imagine a time when hospice volunteering won't be a part of my life. I have so much more to learn about dying, and the dying still have so much more to teach me about life.


  1. K - You know how much I appreciate you. Although, I always like to say it again :)

  2. You always manage to touch me.

  3. Thanks Bob. I appreciate you reading and sharing your kind words.