Because I could not stop for Death

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage help but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.”

-Emily Dickinson

This classic Dickinson poem resonates with me and my experiences in the Pre-Med Hospice Volunteering experience this past year. Before participating in this program and being educated about death and dying, I, as a young college student, had given this subject minimal thought. As a prospective physician, the essence of my job boils down to just keeping people alive, and talking about death seems like a personal failure. However, an inevitable truth of this world is that human beings are mortal; all doctors do is just extend the time for which a person is alive, but everyone will die. As Dickinson eloquently describes, death “kindly stops for [her]” because “[she] could not stop for Death”.

Although I have learned about death in a roundabout way in the Kübler-Ross Model of the 5 stages of grief that people or their loved one’s experience, it was an eye-opening experience to actually volunteer in a hospice unit. Not only was I able to talk to people who were dying and improve my patient-interaction skills, but I was also exposed to the signs and symptoms of someone who might be close to dying.

I was also able to interact with the families of the veterans and see their side of the story. Some family members were angry, and some were sad or depressed, and some others were just accepting of the fact that their father was going to die soon. Being exposed to the reactions that family members may have to a dying patient gives me valuable experience as a future physician as I will have some idea of what to talk to families about and the inevitability of death.

However, one of the biggest things that I learned from this Hospice Volunteering program is how death is a very human and spiritual thing. In modern day America, talking about death amongst family and community members is very limited, and as a result the death of a loved one can be very traumatic. Dickinson’s words have never been more applicable here, as most people nowadays in the western world are too busy to “stop for Death”. However, there has been proof that the various rituals of the eastern world help communities deal with the death of a loved one in a more emotionally healthy manner. When my grandmother died a couple of years ago, my father went to China and they non-stop partied for a week to “celebrate” her death, and at the time this was very confusing to me. I now understand that this process was very spiritually healing for everyone in the room. As Dickinson put it, “The Carriage help but just Ourselves – / And Immortality”, implying that maybe death should not be thought of as the end, but rather as a positive, moving on process.

During this program, I have learned a lot about my own mortality. My past experiences with death have been made much more profound due to the discussions that we have had here that I have not talked about anywhere else.