I can’t go on. I’ll go on. I have been visiting June this past year. She is a sweetheart. She is very kind, very considerate, and an easy woman to talk to.
When I first met June with Mary (our volunteer coordinator), I was nervous. Meeting a new person with fewer than 6 months to live was a daunting task, and I was not sure I was up to it. I must admit that it wasn’t until later that I finally began warming up to her. As the first semester progressed, I became more and more comfortable with June. She was warm and welcoming, and she loved to talk. We would talk about nothing during my visits, to the point where I felt pressured to think of something intriguing, yet she was still so happy. Eventually, I began to look forward to these weekly visits. It was around that time, in late November, that I began getting attached to her.
I joined Hospice to familiarize myself with death. Since I plan on pursuing medicine, it’s only natural that I keep my enemy close. The last time I dealt with death was when my grandmother passed away during the summer of my junior year, and it was devastating. At the time, I never wanted to experience that pain again. Yet it was precisely because I hated the pain so much that I needed to feel it again. How could I possibly be a good doctor if I shut down every time someone I know dies?
June reminded me greatly of my grandmother. She was caring and funny, and had a penchant for smiling. Though we weren’t extremely close because I never figured out how to surmount that wall, I felt at ease around her. Sometimes she would talk about the other people who visited her, and sometimes she would talk about the food that she loved. It saddened me knowing that such little things could mean so much to her. I began to find myself wishing she could go out and be about during her final months; wishing she were somewhere other than the cramped room at Colonial Ridge she was cooped up in.
My job as a Hospice volunteer is to visit patients once a week. I am supposed to watch for depression and watch for sadness, so that I may alert the staff. Through this, I am supposed to understand death better. I view my job differently. I think of being a Hospice volunteer as an opportunity to share the stress of death that my patient feels, thereby allowing me to understand death better. At this, I failed.
After winter break, I returned to find June in a bad state. She was always exhausted, unresponsive, and weak. Her eyes, once wet and crinkled, were now red and shut. My visits had limited conversation. Her spirit seemed to be squashed out of her. I knew these signs all too well, for I had seen these exact symptoms in my late grandmother. She was reaching the end of the line. Now, when I visited, I couldn’t talk to her. I couldn’t get her to share her secrets because she was too exhausted to. In the end, I was still just a volunteer, a stranger to June.
Which brings us to the present. To sum up my Hospice experience: Death is still an unfamiliar enemy. June, whom I wished to ease, is at her worst. I wish I were more proactive and aggressive this year. I should have jumped straight into the real conversation. I wish I had asked her about her feelings and thoughts about death directly. Maybe that, jarring as it sounds, would have made a bigger difference than my weekly feel-good visits.