A Reflection on My Time as a Hospice Volunteer

It was over the course of the seven months I spent as a hospice volunteer that I experienced three deaths: my grandmother who I call Didi, my patient Lily, and my piano teacher of 10 years. My Didi passed away in November, the same day that my first patient died. I actually received the news of Didi’s death right before I opened the email from Carla, our volunteer coordinator, saying that Lily was my patient no longer. Their deaths were hard to bear, but I took comfort in knowing that they were peaceful. My Didi was loved and felt ready to go. Her mind and memory had been at its clearest. The sorrow I felt, of course, was knowing I would never see her again. It was for Baba, my dad, and his siblings. Did it ever cross my mind that one day I would be in their position, saying goodbye to my own parents as part of the rite of passage of growing up? Yes but no. Something kicked in that protected me from the crippling power of such terrifying thoughts and directed all my energy towards comforting and sharing memories with the people around me. I knew it was love.

I barely knew Lily, but on the Friday three days before her death, I was with her at her bedside, prepared to face the fretful questions and phrases she made in her croaked voice, and to try and soothe her. This time was different. When I picked up her hand and looked into her face, she looked back at me and saw me as if for the first time. She spoke to me as our gazes met, of how grateful she was for my kindness. I could sense how clear her mind was at that moment. As tears started forming behind my eyes, I looked into her eyes and smiled, trying without words to channel back to her this feeling that was steadily mounting. It felt like affection, but larger. It felt like me saying, I don’t know who you are, but it doesn’t matter. Death doesn’t matter, the breathing tubes don’t matter. All that matters is you. Let’s feed upon this moment. Three days later, she was gone. The clarity and peace that had happened to her had also happened with my Didi.

But death isn’t always like that.

I learned of my piano teacher’s short-term battle with cancer and her subsequent death a week ago. My mom told me that the cheerful, patient, and graceful lady I used to sit beside on a bench and practice chords with had broken down in tears. It was so hard for me to hear that, and to imagine her devastated with pain and lying in a hospital bed at the very end. My consolation was hearing how much she loved the scrapbook my sister and I had made for her, chronicling our 10 years as her students. As she turned the pages, I’m sure she must’ve known how much we loved her, and how much of an impact she’d made on us and all her students.

Sitting in our monthly reflection meetings with the rest of my fellow hospice volunteers and Reverend Dr. George Richardson, I heard so many beautiful things said about death and acceptance. I heard stories of love and compassion and stories of anger and hopelessness. I may not have gotten to know my patients as well as other volunteers have, or seen them through emotional rough patches, but I was able to connect with Lily, and read poems to Agnes who smiled in her sleep. I would say that the lesson I would ascribe from it all— hospice and the deaths of my loved ones— is this: when the time has come and nothing can stop it, the only real antidote to death is love. When love has washed out anger, fear, and hopelessness so that only love exists, only then we are prepared to accept death, provide comfort, and in the words of Atul Gawande, do what is within our power to give people “a good life to the very end.”