“It’s too depressing. I couldn’t do it.”
That’s what I hear from friends about the volunteer work my wife and I do for Unity Hospice in Green Bay. I respect my friends’ feelings, but they don’t get it. Being invited, as a stranger, into one of the most personal and intimate times in a person’s life is a privilege. An honor.
Life is a journey. At its conclusion, we are all going to die. As a hospice volunteer, we are part of a team that helps make that end-of-life experience more comfortable for patients and their families.
I sat one afternoon with a retired 89-year-old farmer to give his caregiver wife a break. He was semi-comatose and very agitated when I arrived. Since he couldn’t speak, I slid one of my hands under his to make contact. Almost instantly, he relaxed. I left after two hours of “hand-holding” and wondered if I had wasted my time. At the funeral a few days later, his son told me that afternoon had been the calmest of his father’s final days.
Another patient – a Marine hero and winner of the Bronze Star – may be battling Alzheimer’s now, but he’s quick to respond with a delighted grin when I address him as “Captain.”
I have been asked to give eulogies for three Unity patients, remarkable since I’ve only known them in their last weeks or months. At one funeral, I passed along a few stories the World War II veteran had told me during our visits. One was a pretty funny incident in 1945 when he and a fellow soldier successfully maneuvered the communications barrier with a German hausfrau and were able to use the bathroom in her home. (I had to clean up the language a little bit.) Later, one of his children tearfully told me how excited she was to hear the stories. Apparently they were tales he had kept to himself.
I’ve had a patient who drank himself to death. Literally. Others died very young. Some alone. Some in living conditions that were pretty dismal. But it’s not my place to be judgmental or try to figure out why. Our role is to try to make the patients as comfortable possible. To give their caregivers a break.
Volunteering with hospice has given us a greater appreciation for the gift of good health. It has also brought me tremendous admiration for the professionals at Unity – the social workers, nurses and other staff who make hospice their life’s work. Our patients and their families have a name for them: “God’s angels.”
That I believe.
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