Bringing Humanity to Death

There are a lot of clichés to describe death, most of which seem to center around an attempt at personal acceptance of the inevitable. Death is a lot less scary and mysterious when we choose to think of it as a kind of never-ending sleep, or as the next great adventure. Although death is, on a personal level, undoubtedly a scary and inevitable part of everyone’s life, it is also an opportunity for closure and even fulfillment. If hospice has taught me anything, it’s that putting humanity back into the last days of the dying and their loved ones helps them all reach a true peace.

I came to hospice work after a protracted experience with end-of-life care. My grandmother was on hospice for several years of my childhood before she passed away. There was a hospice worker named Mary who came to visit my grandmother, at first a few times a week and by the end almost daily. Mary did a lot of work to help ensure that my grandmother was as comfortable as possible, including helping prepare her food and keeping her house in order along with my grandfather. But Mary eased the burden on my grandfather, allowing him to spend way more quality time with my grandmother than would have been possible for him on his own. Further, he and my grandmother developed a close and loving relationship with Mary, who even years after my grandmother’s passing is still an integral part of my grandfather’s home life.

The type of relationship Mary modeled for me greatly influenced my approach to hospice volunteering. Although on a smaller scale, I found that Mary’s example led me through confusing scenarios. When I visited a patient who in her last days was surrounded my family, I thought of Mary when I offered to take care of some chores to free up quality family time. I gave my patient’s daughter a chance to remember her dying mother with me as she slept nearby. An important part of death, when possible, is that one can be surrounded by her family.

I also learned to try and fill the quiet moments with something fulfilling. I met with another patient who could not speak, and so communicating with her was difficult and extremely one sided. But after some thinking, I decided that I would try singing for my patient, as it’s something I love to do. She was always a very appreciative audience, and it became a way for us to connect even though we couldn’t communicate very clearly. I hope that I was able to provide her with moments of joy that might have been hard for her to find.

Death and dying can be intimidating to experience first or secondhand. But the guiding principle that served me in hospice volunteering was to inject a moment of humanity and warmth into my time with my patients. The fear and loneliness of death can’t be staved off with clichés. Compassion and attention go a long way to helping others experience a good and happy death.