In the year between finishing undergrad and beginning grad school, I volunteered with a hospice organization.
I was only 22 years old and wasn’t qualified to do much, but I could be a “friendly visitor” to patients. I could be a companion on the journey toward death and new life — a safe friend without bias, solely present to offer consolation and support.
When someone is given a prognosis from a doctor that they will live for six months or less due to an illness or medical condition, they are a candidate for hospice care. Hospice is holistic by design — it incorporates a larger network to care for and educate the patient and their family as they look toward death and dying.
While the person who is dying still receives active medical attention from nurses and doctors for their physical bodies, hospice recognizes that we also need care as emotional, social, and spiritual beings. Because of this, hospice teams are also comprised of chaplains, social workers, and volunteer “friendly visitors.”
Why did I enter this volunteer work to spend time with people I did not know as they neared death? When I was in college, two of my great-grandmothers died and I was unable to be with them in their final days because I was separated by the span of states between California and Indiana. I prayed for them and we spoke on the phone, but I ached to see them and spend time with them as they neared the end of their lives.
Something that brought me comfort was hearing about who cared for them — they called hospice workers their “angels.” Outside of our family, they were loved and cared for by folks in palliative and hospice care. I wanted to be a companion like that for someone else’s mother, grandmother, father, or friend.
One thing I learned in journeying with people toward death was the value of sharing their treasured stories. Patients I visited varied from being fully aware of themselves, their stories, and surroundings to being totally nonverbal, but each friend I journeyed with was a unique encounter in some way. Like Dorothy.
Dorothy was my closest friend while I was a friendly visitor with hospice. She was an 89-year-old woman who grew up in Missouri. She was a teacher, lover of Jeopardy, and independent spirit. Every conversation started with her saying, “So, what do you know?” and ended with her telling me that she loved me. Most of our time was spent with me sitting next to her bed, talking about life.
One day, I visited her just before lunchtime in the nursing home. Dorothy said she needed to “put her face on” — she asked me if I would put on her lipstick and comb her hair. I was caught off guard as I did not typically take care of her physically. But Dorothy wasn’t embarrassed or shy in asking for my help.
Per her instruction, I fetched her lipstick and comb from her bathroom. Standing at her left side, I did my best to apply pink color to her thin lips and brush her hair that had been matted down by laying in bed all day, every day. She looked at me, smiled, and was ready to go.
This simple moment of helping with her comb and lipstick in a nursing home room, getting ready for lunch, became sacred space. It was a moment of remembering that we belong to each other, as Saint Mother Teresa would say. Through Dorothy, I experienced the gift of kinship — the gift of vulnerability that lets us enter into one another’s lives and stories.
When you’re looking at the end of your life, it becomes important to live and speak with honesty. Depending on where someone is in their journey toward death, the ability to look at yourself and your life can be a freeing experience; it can also prompt fear or defensiveness. For most folks in hospice care, death is a process by which our bodies, minds, and abilities slowly change. In many cases, what was once known as normal is taken away.
One man I visited could no longer eat food orally, but only through a tube that entered his body in his abdomen. The first time I was present for his “mealtime,” when a nutrition shake was poured into the tube, I felt uncomfortable — like I was seeing something far too intimate for a near stranger.
There is a profound vulnerability in this kind of physical honesty. Usually, we want to shield our imperfections, insecurities, and challenges from others, but dying does not allow for such dishonest protection.
My friend did not go to communal mealtime at the nursing home because it was too difficult for him to be unable to eat. So he missed socializing there and was instead isolated in his room. Though he was mobile and would pop into the hallway for the newest goings-on, the inability to share a meal with others was a lonely experience. We did not have much in common and our conversation was rarely smooth, but we became odd companions. I was empowered to advocate and care for him because he let me into his life — he shared with me the things he struggled with and what gave him comfort.
Being in need is often a synonym for weakness, but the process of dying reveals something different. Being in need and depending on others allows for intimacy. Being honest about our own needs allows us to know and be known. We come to experience a depth in relationships that is otherwise unimagined by the rush of everyday life that leaves us independent — and closed-off.
The process of dying is often messy, full of fearful uncertainty, and a tumultuous road of ups and downs. But it can also be beautiful — filled with sacred and sacrificial love, peace beyond common understanding, and hope. As we ask big questions about how to live meaningful lives, it is also worth meditating on what it looks like to die a dignified and beautiful death.