Some people think hospice volunteering means personal sacrifice. They say we deny our own needs to help others. That our work consists of swallowing huge doses of grief, suffering and sadness doled out through the daily misfortunes of strangers.
“How do you do it?” they ask. “Death is so hard. It’s so terribly sad. You hospice people are so giving, so brave.”
It nice to hear you’re thought of as brave. It makes you feel good to be called “giving.” The truth is, though, being a hospice volunteer has very little to do with bravery or generosity, or any of the other very kind things people like to tell us. I recall being so nervous about visiting my first hospice patient that I forgot her name, lost her address and neglected to fill my gas tank on the way, which meant that just as I rolled up to her front door — thinking what was her name? Suzanna? Debbie? Francis? — my car ran out of gas.
But once we get past our initial fear and hesitation, hospice volunteers love our work. Once we realize that all we really have to do is be ourselves, we don’t endure our visits with patients. We love them. When someone asks for a hospice volunteer, we don’t sign up feeling burdened or generous or kind. We feel excited. Eager. We feel gratitude.
We’re not martyrs, far from it. We’re as human as the people we try to help. We hate suffering. We don’t like being afraid. We don’t know how to predict or control death. We also have our own losses and our own weaknesses. We too need comfort.
But we volunteers have uncovered a wonderful secret: When it comes to hospice, giving to others is only half of what happens. The other half is what families and patients give us. The chance to witness human courage at its best, to see the proof of what love can be, what honesty can do and what true human dignity takes. When we’re with patients, they teach us how to listen, how to learn, how to give love without being asked and how to accept love without fear. Hospice, at its best, has very little to do with death. It’s much more about life.
That’s why I’m so passionate about volunteering — April is National Volunteer Month — and about hospice care in general. In fact, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the U.S. hospice movement was founded by volunteers. Moreover, hospice is unique in that it is the only Medicare provider that is required to have volunteers provide at least 5 percent of total patient care hours under Medicare conditions of participation.
I’ve never left the home of a hospice family without feeling that I’m the one who ought to be grateful, and I’ve come to believe most of us in hospice feel this way. We all want to give to the members of our community in some way that can be counted as worthy — but we volunteers are the ones who continue wanting, above all else, to say thank you, thank you, thank you for everything our patients have given us.
Laura Hendrie is a volunteer with Ambercare Hospice of Santa Fe and is becoming certified as a Personal Approach Care trainer. She lives in Santa Fe.