Death Is Not All About Sadness

I did not know what to expect when I arrived for my first visit as a hospice volunteer. I only had the information I was given beforehand. I was told that many patients in hospice have dementia or can be reluctant to respond, and I was a little nervous that I may have a difficult time interacting. But I was pleasantly surprised when I met Helen for the first time.

Helen is 97 years old and spends most of her time in bed. However, she has shown that dying does not always need to be about catastrophizing. When I go to visit Helen, she greets me warmly. She likes lollipops, so she always has a big bag of dum-dums in her room. She’ll often share her snacks with me by offering me a few and insisting I take some home with me. While the two of us talk, we’ll have lollipops and drink pepsi. I usually stop by right after Helen has finished her lunch, and she will tell me what she had eaten, and tell me about the quality of the meal. This can lead to conversations about favorite recipes from family or good restaurants she used to visit. I always feel welcome when I visit Helen and because of that my meetings with her are focused on enjoying good company rather than on the end of life. Helen’s positive attitude is contagious and makes me feel excited to visit her each week.

I have also seen Helen do her best to help her roommates enjoy themselves as well. One of her roommates, Helen has told me, is blind and suffers from a lot of pain, to which Helen added that she was grateful for her own health. Her roommate would shout a lot and at first came off as unpleasant, but soon Helen was able to find that her roommate also enjoyed Doctor Phil and Frank Sinatra. Now when Helen is watching TV or listening to her radio, she will turn the volume loud enough for her roommate to hear, which has made her much happier. She has even pressed her call button for her neighbor when she was in need. Even though Helen occasionally complains about her roommate, her patience paid off which allowed for her to finally be able to bond and find a way to make her roommate happy.

Helen’s sense of compassion and will to make others comfortable has taught me a lot about end of life care. She has taught me how patience and understanding is important to creating a bond with someone at the end of life, and that even if that person may seem difficult at first, there are still ways to make them happy. Helen’s gratefulness has also taught me that even when a person is dying, he or she can still enjoy what they used to enjoy, whether it be a good meal or a conversation about friends or family; and that focusing on what somebody can still enjoy rather than what is causing them pain is the best way to make someone have the best end of life that they can have.