I thought that when I became a volunteer, it would be as simple as approaching my chosen agency, saying, “I want to volunteer”, telling them in what capacities I was willing to serve, convincing them that I was a good and honest person, and it would be done. Sometimes it amazes me how simple life is - in my head, at least.
I am in my second week of volunteer training for hospice. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. The experience is proving to be nothing like I expected.
I thought that it would be mostly middle-aged women. Our group is composed of 8 women. Of those, half are actually middle-aged, two are in their forties, and the other two appear to be in their early thirties.
I expected a lot of informational material, given in the form of mini-lectures. Our group, however, is extremely interactive. There is definitely informational material being given, along with a lot of group dialogue. We discuss feelings and emotions surrounding the issue of death. We talk about family dynamics, and past experiences. We share our stories and sometimes, our heartbreaks. We also watch videos. These are not videos that the average person would find entertaining. These are stories about the end of life, told by the people who were dying. We also listen to various speakers, all team players in the hospice program, and we hear about different scenarios that can go on in the homes of the clients. These team members talk about what the hospice experience has been like for them as nurses, client bathers, social workers, and caregivers.
We laugh a lot in our little group; and we cry. We are free to explore the deepest and most poignant feelings that we have about death and dying. If we are going to sit with people and families in the death process, it is best that each of us know who we are at our depths. We need to explore what we have to give, and what we hope to get out of the experience. The families that hospice volunteers work with are looking for a calming influence, for some respite in the care giving, and for a little bit of comfort. As a volunteer, we are taught what the boundaries are in interacting with families, and what needs we may encounter. Through all of this training, we are constantly looking inside of ourselves to see what is really there.
I had imagined that there was a set of “rules” or parameters that we would follow as volunteers. You can do this, but you can’t do that. The only rules that we’ve been taught, however, are that we cannot dispense medication, and we cannot tell our clients or their families what we think they should believe or how they should act. No judgment, period. Death is a uniquely individual experience, and families process it differently according to their own personal value systems, lifestyles, and beliefs. You can no more presume to know what is best for someone in this situation than you can in any situation of life. People process events differently. The role of the hospice volunteer is strictly to be there for the family. We can basically do anything that the family needs us to do, as long as we feel comfortable doing it. If we are not comfortable with a request, we simply need to state that. As volunteers, we are not bound by things that we have to do. It is up to the family and their needs, and our own comfort levels.
I look forward to my first volunteer assignment. I have some pretty definite feelings about the death process, and I feel that we can do a tremendous service in helping others to make the transition as smoothly and peacefully as possible. I also understand that this type of work is not for everyone. I would, however, highly recommend it to anyone who feels that they could serve others in this capacity.