Throughout my life, I have always been a stranger to death. I’d always seen or heard about it in the media, but I never felt it myself. I had never known or encountered someone who I have been close to who has died. Perhaps the most related incident I have with death is with my great grandmother, who passed away a few years ago. Even then, I didn’t feel an immense feeling of loss, only a feeling of acceptance. The times I felt the most sorrow with her was during visits years before her death. I felt that at this time, the sadness I felt was regarding her loneliness and perhaps a feeling of impending death, simply that she was nearing her end. After her death, I have had no further experiences with death.
Now, after participating in the hospice program, I have interacted with people who face death every day. Learning about palliative care during orientation proved very helpful in my experiences with my patients. Previously, I worked often with children, and the primary objective with them was to teach them to become independent and learn on their own. With hospice and the elderly, it is no longer an issue of whether they know how to put on their jackets well enough, but rather about how to make their lives more comfortable. They are no strangers to putting on clothes; rather as they get older it becomes more difficult to do themselves, so a direct “helping” is more justified than in other cases.
Honestly, hospice was perhaps one of the most difficult volunteer experiences I have participated in. The “art of hanging out” as Reverend Graham described it was a difficult art to learn, and I am not sure if I have ever mastered it. My attempts to keep my patients comforted and engaged were difficult primarily because I believed they were somewhat calmer, quieter patients. Though I attempted to have conversation, they have often been difficult to sustain, due to one word answers and similar responses. As such, I have resorted to using reading such as poetry to keep my patients company. To one of them, who was a literature professor at a university, poetry was useful in giving him peace and something enjoyable to listen to. The other patient seemed significantly less lucid and was much more difficult to interact with. With her though she did describe many things that did not appear to be tangible to me, I usually went along with what she talked about, and this seemed to give her comfort.
The primary thing I learned from hospice is that people are truly grateful for even small things such as reading poetry to them. Though this is no reason to give only a minimal amount knowing they would be happy, the fact that I all I could give them were these small instances and how it gave them peace in the face of a large and grave future was heartwarming. I hope that I was able to give even a little comfort to my patients during my time with them.