Last time I talked about how my dad’s illness and death helped guide me toward hospice. What I hadn’t mentioned was that he was never on hospice – we didn’t even have time to consider that. My first experience in hospice care came while I was in seminary at Yale Divinity, where for a time I volunteered at Connecticut Hospice.
This was my first experience with any kind of hospice. My responsibilities were pretty light – empty the garbage cans by the bedside, make sure the water pitchers were full. But it was quite an interesting experience and one that, along with many others, pointed me in the direction where I am headed now.
Connecticut Hospice is the first hospice in the United States. When I volunteered there it was still at it’s older location, though it was still a very nice facility. One of the things that struck me, and many others, was how the rooms were arranged. That is to say there were no individual rooms, at least as I remember them. I think there were some isolation rooms for those with infectious diseases. But everyone else had beds in wings without dividing walls. There were curtains for privacy of course. Each wing had twelve beds arranged in rows of three. At first this seemed odd and a throwback to more institutional days. However the arrangement was intentional. The patients could talk to each other, and families could talk to each other as well. They got to know one another, and more importantly got to help one another. Illness and dying weren’t hidden behind closed doors. When a patient at the hospice died, everybody knew and consoled one another. It was something to see.
And there were characters there as well. I remember a short little lady who regaled the whole hospice with stories and kept everyone in stitches. She was one of those ones who never seemed that sick. Then one day I came in and saw the empty bed. I asked what had happened and they told me she had died. I was surprised and cried a bit, more than I expected. To me it came as a shock. However when I talked with the staff, they weren’t shocked at all. They smiled and told stories, and spoke of how they’d miss her. “After all, this is a hospice” they would say.
What I learned: Dying isn’t always scary or sad
One thing that really hit me was the overall atmosphere of the place. It was not a sad, morbid place. The people there, generally, were not sad, or scared, or angry. It almost made you forget at times that this was a hospice – that most people here were not going home and would likely never get better. Many of the residents were full of life, and enjoyed sharing their stories and were appreciative of whatever small thing you did for them. Their not being scared helped me not be scared.
I took this into my chaplaincy in a similar way. If I don’t appear scared or angry or sad, that changes the whole dynamic of what’s going on when I’m visiting with someone who is dying and their family. I can serve as a mediator between the objective reality of what is happening and the emotional reality. When I’m able to be with someone in the middle of a tremendously anxious situation but not be anxious, holding reality and experience in tension, it strengthens that person or family and allows them to borrow that energy from me. It’s the power of the “non-anxious presence” that doesn’t judge, or seek to change, or hide, or dismiss. It is neither patronizing nor overwhelming. It accepts what is, knowing it could not be otherwise. It provides comfort not from trying to do something but by being and understanding things as they are.
I’ve found this tremendously helpful in my work, and volunteering is how I initially saw it in action.
What else I learned: I can do this
I was planning on going in to pastoral care and counseling in seminary, and hoped to work at a church as a staff member doing counseling. However while at CH I met with the chaplain there and, after our conversation, thought “I could do this too”. Now that didn’t change my direction initially, but it did open me up to other opportunities. I could see that hospice work was not something that everyone could do, but that I had the makeup to do it without going to pieces.
We all need that; the reassurance and confidence to feel that we could do something that we didn’t think we could do. The surprise comes when, as we are doing it, we hear others say “oh I couldn’t do THAT!”. What comes off as routine to one is impossible to another. That should be our first clue as to where our gifts are, and not to overlook them.