Coming into my junior year of college at the University of Pittsburgh, I did not expect to spend a Sunday every couple of weeks sitting inside a church, eating pizza, and reflecting on death. But I am grateful I did.
Over the 2017-18 school year, I had the opportunity to spend time at West Penn Hospital as a hospice volunteer. Through the Athena Hospice Program, I was supported throughout this volunteering experience by group meetings led by Pastor Andrews as fellow student volunteers and I discussed the experience of providing care and comfort to patients on hospice.
Death, as well as aging, are topics we avoid as a society. They are difficult to reflect on. We use phrases like “passed away” or “left this world” rather than “died.” And I am no exception. I hesitate to openly discuss death with those closest to me because doing so means acknowledging that everyone — my loved ones as well as myself — will one day die.
But through this program, I was challenged to confront this insecurity. I have learned how to have difficult conversations with hospice patients about the end of their lives. For me, the result of reflecting on death, which often feels like a murky, nebulous unknown, is a renewed appreciation for the vitality and beauty of life. As I reflected on death and dying, I found joy in patients’ stories about their childhoods, their livelihoods, their lovers.
I learned small actions can go a long way. I saw a patient’s face relax, relief wash over, as a nurse aide and I moved her pillows and readjusted her position until she was comfortable. I was reminded of the impact of a genuine conversation or a thoughtful gesture, such as listening to a patient reminisce about their past or offering weary family members a warm chocolate chip cookie.
Through this program, death has become more real, something tangible. Yet, if I am honest, it still eludes me. It feels out-of-reach; something I can come close to grasping, but not quite, like trying to touch your reflection in a mirror. But because of the Athena Hospice Program, I have had the opportunity to confront my own questions about the experience.
As a premedical student who aspires to work with older, geriatric patients, I now have a more profound understanding of the uncertainties and questions patients navigate during the process of dying. My empathy for patients on hospice, as well as their families, has deepened. I have witnessed first-hand how frank conversations about death allow patients to find closure and acceptance during the final stages of their life.
No matter where I go next, I will carry this newfound understanding of death with me. I aspire to be a future physician, but also a granddaughter, daughter, sister, and friend, who is open about having honest, open conversations about the process of death and dying. I am grateful to the Athena Hospice Program because I now have the tools and experience to do so.
I hope both professionally, and in my personal life, to continue to find peace, understanding, and meaning in death, and ultimately, the vibrant lives of those around me.