I have come to appreciate death as a process that is inherently social, and one that is quite active. As a hospice volunteer, my presence is not constant, but regular. And in this time, I have come to appreciate my relationship with the hospice patient—no matter how strong—as one that places me in the process of both dying and living. I say a process because, like life, death is an act in motion. My relation to the patients with whom I visited changing each time I visit.
Meet someone once, and his death is merely an absence, a pinpoint in both my and his process. During my first introductory visit to the Wayne center, I met a gentleman with advanced ALS. Hardly able to speak, he struggled to chat about motorcycles until he asked for the nurse and we left. The following week, I received an email about his passing.
Meeting someone twice, and his death is the loss of another Green Bay fan and a husband. During the same visit, I met “Len” —another, less advanced ALS patient—and his wife, “Sue”. Sue informed us that she visited six days a week for the past year. Len nodded, then returned to watching football. The next visit, Len was again watching football. I ask him who his favorite team is. “Green Bay,” he said never looking up from the screen. My next visit, the sign on Len’s door is gone, and his bed is empty.
Meeting someone a few times, and you begin to appreciate the sociality that seems inherent in hospice care, and in dying. By my third visit with “LuLu”, I was lucky enough to hear all about her baby doll and the Wayne Center cat, that she likes cooking and she hasn’t seen her sister in a while. And by the fourth, she had offered to adopt my fellow volunteer and I as her niece and nephew. While LuLu was still alive and active—physically, that is—on my last visit, I could see how even the last few months have changed her. She is forgetting more, and the stories started to repeat themselves.
The hospice patient, while they may be physically lying in a bed, is going through the dying process as a person in motion. Throughout this endeavor, the patient’s relationship with those around them is constantly changing as their illness and health changes and they approach death. This movement is ingrained at a socio-cultural level by the many metaphors and euphemisms we use to explain death and dying: a passing, a moving on, going to a better place, stepping through a door. Yet, I have had a chance to see these metaphors in action through my time volunteering in hospice care. In living, as in dying, it is difficult to form memorable bonds with someone after one or two visits. Relationships require building and cultivating, developing overtime. While my relationships with the gentleman in Room 202, Len and LuLu were all different, each has taught me a little bit about the process of dying, but more importantly, each has taught me about the process of relating.