Dying: A Ten-Year Reflection

At twenty-years-old the AHN Hospice Program gave me my first medical volunteering position, but I was ten-years-old when I had my first experience with end-of-life care. Then, everything under the umbrella of healthcare fell under two categories: wounds bandages, ice cubes, and my parents’ kisses could fix, and “the hospital.” Nasal cannulas and IV wires splayed out from a child’s body looked like strange venation patterns I’d traced in art class. I knew my sister’s god sister, my god sister by proxy, was dying, and I understood that “the hospital” was taking care of her body while her faith in God supported her dreams and her family. But end-of-life and hospice weren’t words in my dictionary at the time. She was healthy, sick, and then dead, joyful throughout it all, and I didn’t give any thought to the transition between sickness and death.

As a volunteer, I think about it almost too much. I wonder how patients accept their diagnoses, and how they gather their families to do the same. I wonder what patients think in silent moments, what they decide to prioritize in their lives. I wonder about the families hovering over or running from them and how they learned to breathe without a weight on their chests. I’ve heard that with wisdom comes responsibility, but people often forget sorrow chaperons wisdom too. I try to balance both as I come to understand life and death. Reading volunteer prompts helps. I re-read each twice, have watched every video, and implemented those lessons into my interactions with patients and their families.

Sometimes I’d sit with them, and other times I’d ramble about anything in my life that was peaceful enough to be soothing. This semester, I mainly made phone calls with varying frequency depending on the person. I spoke with Alicia, the daughter of a hospice patient, for months. Alicia was her mother’s primary caretaker and had moved her mother into her apartment during the hospice stay. Her mother had limited mobility and mental decline, and Alicia often baked cakes with her mother to keep her occupied. From our conversations, I learned that baking was a soothing tradition for their family. Her mother had given her recipes to re-spark childhood flavours trapped in old memories, and she spread those flavours with her neighbors in the form of cookies. When she wasn’t caring for her mother, she loved knitting winter materials for the building.

I think what Alicia needed was someone to listen to and distract her. As an older woman, she couldn’t be as active as she’d like and had a smaller support circle then she once did. Talking gave her some social interaction and allowed her to vent her frustrations. At first, I second guessed my words, rolling them around on my tongue before speaking while simultaneously wanting to do more. My struggle wasn’t unique—it was something many, from premeds to healthcare workers, wrestle with. There is this desire to disregard death by saying the right thing to motivate people and finding a way to save everyone. Volunteering with Athena curved that desire in me. I wasn’t, and will never be, trained to cure every ailment and mend emotional wounds. My role was to empathize with patients and their families as part of their support system. I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t comfortable with death.