Before I started volunteering with Ascend Hospice this year, death was an unfamiliar and scary topic for me to consider. I have not had a close family member or friend pass away in my lifetime, so I did not have the experience of dealing with my own emotions concerning death. I always thought of it as something that I would deal with when I got older, and that because I was young I was invincible from death. Not only is the latter statement false, but as an aspiring doctor, death is something I will certainly face and certainly need to be able to handle, both for myself and for the sake of the patients I am treating and their families. That is why I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I have had this year to not only (hopefully) have had a positive impact on patients who were close to passing, but to also reflect on how I feel and how I can process the inevitable fate of dying.
I had the chance to spend time with numerous hospice patients at different stages in their diagnoses. I spent time with patients who were both conscious and talkative, and patients who were not fully coherent and preferred a quiet environment. The latter situation is something that I struggled with in the beginning, but later learned how I could still be impactful. I wasn’t sure how to best interact in the beginning; for instance, would it annoy them if I talked to them and told them about myself and what was going on in my life, or would they not enjoy hearing from someone and not responding? Was sitting in front of the television or listening to some music pleasant or would they prefer quiet? I felt a little awkward in the beginning, but then I later realized that even just the presence of someone near you is powerful. Even when those patients didn’t verbally affirm that they were enjoying my company, I learned how I could have an impact even if it was just sitting by their bed and quietly reflecting.
One of the exercises that we did in the beginning of the year at one of the reflection meetings with our chaplain really stuck with me. Our chaplain posted a bunch of words on the walls around the room and we were asked to choose which one we identified death with. There were pleasant words like heaven, peace, and reunification, and there were less pleasant ones like black hole and the end. Death for each person doesn’t have to mean the same thing. For patients who are religious, it could mean being reunited with loved ones or continuing on in the afterlife. For patients who are not, it could simply mean an end to their pain and suffering, and therefore for some people, dying in the moment could be a blessing. All in all, I can say that the idea of death is now something I am comfortable facing. It will never be welcomed or pleasant, but I know how to cope.