As an international student from China, whose first language is not English and who has never had any previous experience of how hospice works, this VA hospital program definitely is very meaningful to me. Originally, I thought hospice simply meant caring for people in hospital, just as what volunteers normally did in every hospital. But after a whole year of participation, I realized that hospice represented more than physical care. It was more like a spiritual interaction between patients and us, and sometimes, it could be made possible even without language.
I am not a religious person, but most of the veterans that I met in the VA hospital were Christians. One of the veterans I met in this hospital was a prisoner of war during WWII. He was a Christian and he was always happy to talk with me about anything religious. At first I thought I could not share any ideas about religion with him, but after several interactions, I realized that it was actually easier to accept a new idea from different religions than I thought it would be. I became more open to talk about death from a religious perspective and I found that this also helped me to understand death better.
In this program, I also realized the importance of talking about death. Sometimes for dying people, they want someone to talk about death with them. Their family should be the best choice, but they usually could not do that because of great grief. Dying people hope that we could help him or her face death more directly and bravely. Even a simple sentence, “Mr. XX, You know what, you are approaching death, and I hope I can talk about that with you,” will make the patient calm down and reduce the anxiety and fear. Language is always a powerful tool in spiritual communication, but sometimes simply staying with people can also make a great difference.
Because of these experiences, I began to think about the meaning of death or the message that death could tell me. During one of our reflection meetings, we talked about what death meant and how we should understand death in a proper way, so that when we tried to help people who were dying, we could know how to interact with them. I am not a religious person, but my parents believe Buddhism. In Buddhism, life is a cycle and death does not mean the end of life, but instead, the starting of a new life. I believe death is like a door. If we say the final destination of life is this door, then when we are approaching this door, everything behind us is already passed and everything in front of us is unknown. No one knows what is behind the door, which is death, so death should not be simply a sad thing. Instead, it could also mean entering a new world, an even happier and better world. When I need to comfort people who are dying or their family, I will use this analogy, trying to tell them that, sometimes, death is also hope.