I am friends with Death. Perhaps, “friends” is not the correct word, rather I am an acquaintance of the faceless, omnipotent entity whose presence we are constantly reminded of in our lives. Whether in watching an ant clinging onto its last moments after being squashed or listening to news of a tragic bombing that news stations widely distribute to fuel mass hysteria, Death is everywhere. It is the one thing that unites all life, from the tiniest Amoeba to the Blue Whale, breaks all socioeconomic barriers and possesses no bias in the ethnicity and racial background of its victims. Death is infinite and mighty, pure and just, so why are we scared of it?
Before being accepted into the Kindred Hospice Volunteer Program, I, too, possessed an innate fear of Death. The idea that one day I would succumb to eternal slumber, not knowing when it would strike, exposed me as I was forced to view myself in the scope of the universe, making me feel miniscule in its vast greatness. Looking back, I feel we fear not the state of death but the action of dying, the pain, regret and unexpectedness associated with it.
Upon starting my volunteer work with Kindred, all of my apprehensions about Death and dying proved to be unfounded as I began navigating the intricacies of the hospice system. When I walked into the Stonebridge facility for the first time, I was stunned. Paper snowflakes dangled delicately from the ceiling, Burt Ives’ melodious, warm voice melted through the air as White Christmas traveled through the room and small tinsel Christmas trees were strewn around the lobby and common area, igniting a spark of holiday cheer in all who gazed upon the merry scene. The inviting scene was quite the opposite of what I had imagined, a cold and sterile room with medicine cabinets as far as the eye could see, busy nurses running from curtain to curtain, with bedridden patients connected to dozens of IVs. I must be in a Hallmark card, not a hospice facility, I thought as I stood mesmerized at the front desk.
As I entered my patient’s room and began my visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see that every patient had their own room, that possessed the same set-up as an apartment (a living room, individual bathroom and bedroom), yet incorporated personal touches of the patient. Being with my patient, we shared fond memories, let the musings of Frank Sinatra sweep us away and allowed ourselves to get lost in classics such as Gone With the Wind. Her happiness was genuine, despite her condition, and not once did our meetings ever become morose by the thought of Death. Instead, most of the patients, including my own, seemed content with the meeting of Death.
As Dr. Kalanithi’s widow wrote, “Paul’s decision to not avert his eyes from death epitomizes a fortitude we don’t celebrate enough in our death avoidant culture [and taught] us to face death with dignity.” As a result of my experiences, I no longer fear Death but respect its power, since I know that Death is neither painful nor something to fear but is an event that can be peaceful. Life is beautiful, but as hospice showed me, Death can bring Life to a peaceful close.