I remember how nervous I felt before starting hospice volunteering because the concept of death was very frightening to me. During my senior year of high school, I lost my grandpa. Experiencing my first loss from someone that was so close to me was unbelievably hard. It made me question whether I could even go into the medicine field if dealing with the inevitability of death caused me this much fear and anxiety. This opportunity to volunteer at hospice gave me a way to give back and talk to people while being immersed in a place where dying is a very ‘normal’ phenomenon.
For my hospice experience, having someone to go in with, Jenny, helped me acclimate to the process so much. Jane and Sue, two very different people I’ve had the chance to develop strong relationships with over the past year, have given me memories, life lessons, and realizations for me to take away and apply in my own life and family. One particularly memorable visit was when we watched Sue, who is bedridden, be fed for the first time. It was shocking because it was so unexpected when we first walked into the room but it was a very grounding moment. Meeting so many different people in my bustling school life, I always tend to overlook the fact that in the end, we are all primitively equal, rooted in needs that we cannot deviate from — we eat, we sleep, we love, we live, we die, regardless of age, health, gender, race.
Even going in to volunteer during midterms week, I found that during those visits, I forgot everything about school. I was so present in the moment and involved with Jane and Sue, focusing only on them. However, as I got used to seeing them weekly, I had trouble with finding the balance between what I could offer and what was crossing the line. I wanted to make them laugh, tell them stories, but I did not want to be a nuisance, making them tired. I wanted to help them if they spilled something and wipe their shirt, but didn’t want to take away their feeling of independence or reduce their autonomy. I wanted to ask them for stories, but did not want to pry in areas I was not welcome in. Luckily, Jane was quite open and talkative — she once talked for 75 minutes straight talking about her past family and her memories of growing up!
Death is always hushed and unspoken even though it is such a prevalent, real, and natural phenomenon. Thankfully, the patients I got to meet this past year stayed healthy. The Swarthmore community recently lost a life in the sophomore class from a skateboarding accident and it shook the whole school. This tragic news made me grateful to have done hospice this past year because the ephemeral and fragile aspects of life are often underestimated and disregarded. Talking to Jane and Sue has taught me the grace of every living day in life and their stories have given me a whole new perspective on history that no textbook could ever teach me. I hope to be able to harness this maturity and realization in MY own life and be grateful for this eye-opening experience. Hospice has provided me a different aspect of life and death that volunteering at a hospital could not give and I hope to continue next year as well.