Life Lessons: Impressions from a Hospice Volunteer
In his famous Rule, written in the sixth century, St. Benedict advised his fellow monks to “keep death daily before (their) eyes.” This is not a message of gloom. Rather, Benedict understood that pondering ultimate realities teaches us how to live. He echoes the psalmist who writes, “Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
This same awareness shaped hospice founder Dr. Dame Cicely Saunders’ vision to help terminally-ill patients “live until they die” by alleviating their pain and treating them with dignity and love. As a hospice volunteer, it is a vision I readily embrace. I believe that our final days can teach us about living, albeit in a different way, with different parameters, and a different view of what “future” means. Spending these days with patients and their families is a privilege, and I have indeed learned about lives well-lived.
I’ve learned, first of all, that these are individual journeys. Some patients radiate peace and deep contentment, while others struggle with anxiety and fear. Some want to explore the mystery of it all, while others want to talk about the weather or simply sit in silence. Some are comforted by a touch of the hand, while others prefer a cold drink or a good game of chess. All are authentic, deeply human, and deserving of our utmost respect.
I’ve also learned that certain situations call for an almost brutal honesty, softened by compassion. There’s a refreshing let’s-not-ignore-the-elephant-in-the-room quality to patient care. Pretense is abandoned. Death is discussed openly and honestly. Time and again, I’ve seen patients comforted as hospice practitioners treat wounds of both body and soul swiftly and tenderly. Words and actions that might be unduly blunt or harsh in another setting bring relief to those standing on the edge of eternity, with little time to waste.
Not wasting time reveals another valuable lesson: living in the moment and being truly present. It doesn’t matter if the moment is a long stretch of quiet boredom or one of acute alertness and vitality. What does matter is that we are all paying attention. There’s a vivid clarity to this time that somehow feels more real than usual. We know that something important is happening, and we have a chance to emerge from it more whole and holy.
Finally, I’ve learned about gratitude. It is common for patients and family members to thank the hospice staff for the care they’ve received. I always want to thank them right back. I am keenly aware that, as St. Benedict and Dr. Saunders knew so well, we are sharing in the fullness of life. I know of no greater gift.
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