Lessons Learned from Sitting with the Dying NULL

Hospice – Lessons Learned Reprint - Originally Published in the Heartland Volunteer Newsletter, June 2011 By: Sam Aspley, Heartland Volunteer
People come to Hospice because something brought them there, like a spiritual calling, turning point or event. “What sent you to us?” is the question commonly asked at interviews. In my case, I donated a kidney several years ago. I woke up after surgery in terrible pain, but I felt like something had clicked. I finally understood all this Bible stuff quite clearly. I didn’t have anything as vivid as a near death experience, but I had a feeling of such love and inner peace that quickly faded as the days passed. It felt wonderful.

To this day, I really don’t know why any of this happened. Everything seemed to fall in place and I was simply along for the ride. Anyone who has done Hospice work will always comment on how much this work has changed them. Donation was the spiritual awakening. Hospice was the spiritual changing.
I have a passion to help the sick, the lonely and the dying. I firmly believe in service work, that you need to be out in the trenches doing something for those who are down and out.
The hospice philosophy is about unconditional love and acceptance. If you feel like you need to pass religious judgment and condemnation on people for their past deeds or lifestyle choices, you probably should consider other volunteer opportunities. You may not approve of what a person has done, but it is important to accept the person and not the behavior.

As hospice volunteers, we go from the daily routine of our boring lives to instant drama when we walk into a death room. I have sat with quite a few people over the years. It’s been fascinating to see the end result of how people have lived their lives. Some people definitely do a better job than others. My services are in demand to work with Veterans because I am able to establish a rapport with those patients who have had a hard life. I am able to talk with them about past mistakes they have made in their lives because I have made plenty of my own. Concepts like forgiveness, salvation and redemption are harder to understand when you are young and don’t have a past.

The paid hospice staff has so many patients that they can’t spend a lot of time with them. As a hospice volunteer, that’s where you come in. Your job is to distract them, take their mind off their problems for a while. If see something wrong at the nursing home, I am to report it off the record and hospice staff will quietly correct it because they do not want to damage the relationship with the nursing home. If a nursing home is criticized by hospice, there would be a reluctance to refer patients to hospice care in the future. The patients would be the ones who would suffer, especially those who do not have any family or friends left to advocate for them.

People tell me that it must be fulfilling and rewarding to be hospice volunteer. There is nothing fulfilling or rewarding about watching someone suffer and die or watching someone lose a loved one. It is a sacred privilege to be included in someone’s journey. Seeing the process of death repeatedly has not desensitized me. It affects me even more because I now have a deeper understanding of the suffering and loss that comes with death and how badly it affects the survivors. After so many years, I just don’t know anymore.

I sometimes feel worn down from seeing so much suffering and death over the years. It is hard to talk about those feelings of loss because most people do not understand. Most often, they will say “If it bothers you so much, why are you doing it?” I do it because I feel a call to serve. I still get choked up, but it does not prevent me from doing my job. I will still come to see you, no matter how hard it gets. This job is not for a weak person. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to pause before I enter a room to say my final farewell and to know that when I walk out, I will be in tears. I know that when I see my patients again, their bodies will no longer be wracked with pain and disease; instead, they will be restored and radiant.

After I finish with my visits, I always leave with a heavy heart. I think about my patients constantly during the week and wonder how they are doing. A heavy sadness is always lurking just below the surface. I truly take a liking for my patients and miss them all. It’s hard to watch their decline, to know that they are never going to get better. I used to like to learn about the medical ailments that were affecting my hospice patients, but now I don't care. It doesn't matter what they have, I'm just concerned about what I can do to help comfort them. No one should die alone.

After seeing the damage caused to so many families by a lifetime of conflict and how so often the opportunity for reconciliation dies along with the patient, the lesson of forgiveness really hit home for me. If we only judged people on their past mistakes or behavior, we wouldn't have anyone in our lives because no one is perfect.

I learned a valuable lesson in my relationships, not everything has to come to a resolution. It's ok to agree to disagree, love will still exist. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and let it go. You don't always need to make the other person acknowledge or apologize for doing something that may have hurt you. It would be nice if they did, but it seldom happens in real life. It doesn't happen because we all tend to see things differently or we are unaware that we hurt the other person until later.

Self-forgiveness is also an important step because the hard and unforgiving attitude we show to ourselves will certainly reflect on how we end up treating others. Self-forgiveness becomes harder as we get older simply because of the accumulation factor. There is just so much that has piled up over the years.
The first stories are not Hospice related, but they have had a profound impact on my life and give you an idea as to why I volunteer.

1. My grandmother died of a massive stroke at 61, right after singing “How Great Thou Art” at a church funeral. She sat down and was gone. I think there was something to it because how often do people actually die in church? How fortunate she was to go straight home after singing her final hymn of praise.

2. I was in FFA - Future Farmers of America. My 9th grade Vocational Agriculture teacher dropped dead in the middle of class from a massive heart attack. Having watched the whole thing unfold, I believe he was dead before he hit the floor. He was a good man and a good teacher. A classmate who was an Explorer Scout with the local fire department attempted CPR, to no avail. Later we were told that his heart had ruptured. The classmate who had attempted CPR was given a recognition certificate and rightly so because he was only 14 at the time.

Kids are so mean at that age, nobody congratulated him like they should have and it went mostly ignored. The kid who won the latest fight after school had more admiration than someone who is a decent enough person to try and do something. The incident made me get CPR certified with a vow that I never would be the bystander again.

3. I am reminded of an episode that happened while I was in the service, where cruel words had devastating effects. Mike was an awkward seven-foot tall white kid and no, he couldn’t play basketball. He seemed to let things get to him too easily. It wasn’t that he was weak; it’s that he should have stood up for himself more often. Instead, he tried to live according to his faith and would let these provocations pass. That was his problem, he was too nice. Someone picked up on this as a sign of weakness, started in with the harassment and others joined in.

We were in the same unit, but had worked in different sections. I only knew him from when we went to NCO School together where I had an opportunity to meet his family during graduation day. He was married with two daughters, ages 4 and 6. His wife was tall and very pretty, a real sweetheart. The girls looked just like their mother, cute and well behaved. You could see that they absolutely adored their parents. He had the kind of family that any man would have been proud to have. From what I saw of Mike’s performance at school, he was a good student and graduated high in his class.
One night he shot himself with an M1 carbine. “No one saw it coming.” I wonder how the main instigator feels after all of these years. What a terrible secret to live with, that you had a part in this tragedy. I am so glad that I was never mean to Mike. Was it really so important for him to measure up to the macho standards of some alcoholic psycho? It was a classic example of this - “Man Up” crap.

Lives weren’t hanging in the balance; it was just some stupid stuff down at the motor pool. Most Vets like to talk about their military service, I do not. The incident made me vow to do something positive in his memory because Mike was a good Marine who didn’t deserve the treatment he received.

I often think about his kids, wondering how they are doing. Their mother was spiritually grounded and totally devoted to raising her daughters. We all felt that if anyone could get these girls through this terrible tragedy, it would be her. Less than a week later, this woman who was supposed to be such a rock of stability, drove out into the middle of the desert and took her own life with a canteen of water and some pills.

How would you like to be the one who had to tell these two adorable little girls this latest news? I couldn’t imagine having to go through life carrying such a tremendous amount of grief from such an early age. I hope and pray their daughters are doing well and have come to terms with such a devastating loss. I want them to know that I personally saw how much their parents loved them, they just weren’t thinking straight at the time when they did what they did. Think before you speak, your words can have far reaching effects. Rarely are they good ones.

4. I was living down in Killeen, Texas when the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting occurred back in 1991. A man who hated women drove his truck through the window, got out and shot something like 28 people; most of them women. My girlfriend at the time worked at the local high school. Three of her co-workers had gone to lunch that day and never returned. My girlfriend had planned to go with them, but something had come up and she couldn’t make it. I got to see how badly this loss was affecting her.
I also got to see how badly this event affected the town. Everybody knew somebody. We couldn’t believe it. Three years later I was in Fire School. One day they had first responders come in and give a talk on their experiences that day. There was not a dry eye in the place. I still do not understand how a person could be filled with that much hate and evil. I would not want to have all of those people on the other side waiting to testify against me when it’s my turn to cross over.

I want to include a poem that really describes how I feel about my life.

I have journeyed to a place of great sorrow…And from there did I cry from the depths of my soul…At times I thought that I might never return…But I have come back stronger, richer…And with greater knowledge of myself…The crack in my broken heart will remain forever…Its purpose is no longer to let grief in…But to let greater love out.
Poem by Myrriah Osborne

Submitted by Anonymous


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