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I come to hospice volunteering from an unusual angle in comparison to other volunteers. Most people who choose to do volunteer caregiving in hospice do so because they have been with a relative or loved one during their dying process and it has profoundly impacted them. I can certainly see why they would choose to volunteer. However, I come from the unusual experience of having been the one to die and for some unfathomable reason I was plucked from the jaws of death. I survived odds that no reasonable person would ever choose. Only 6.8% of people survive out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest in the US and only 3% survive without debilitating anoxic/hypoxic brain injury. Statistically, I really shouldn’t still be here.

During a conversation/training on the signs of approaching death, there was a discussion about unpleasant odors that are sometimes present and the bodily fluids that can cause them. I was abruptly reminded that night of an undignified part of my own death just over a year ago. In addition to going into convulsions due to oxygen deprivation, my bladder voided its contents into my shorts and onto the grass in front of everyone who was witnessing my death. I was not in control of this body. I was the one that was dying and apparently that’s what dying people do. It’s not the sort of thing that I like to think about because there is no dignity in pissing your pants while being completely unable to care for yourself. I know this all too intimately.

The conversation about this, during the training, had a level of humor and levity that was both understandable and a somewhat painful and jarring for me personally. I understand, respect, and will defend the value and use of humor as a way to help caregivers manage and be present for the difficult or even traumatic experiences of being with the dying. My paramedic rescuers taught me how important this sense of humor was to the preservation of their sanity as they went on emergency call after emergency call, day after day, year after year.

And yet the levity and humor also stung because that was me dying and it was me, pissing my pants during the process, as others were trying to care for me. There was nothing dignified in it. It was humbling and even somewhat humiliating. Maybe that’s why preserving the dignity of our hospice residents is so important to me. In this way, I may understand them like few people can. My hope in writing and sharing this is that it will help others to understand the role of humor as well as to empathize more deeply with those we serve.

The Waystation

Sunday evening: I entered her room. Labored, inconsistent breathing, still body lying in bed, hands occasionally grasping. The grating drone and incongruous cadence of the announcers at a basketball game was blaring away on the TV in the background. Future measured in days, not weeks, they said. Hearing, one of the few senses left that connected her to everything beyond the boundary of her skin.

“It shouldn’t be like this” moved through my veins like icewater.

No, she didn’t watch sports when she was able to communicate her needs and I don’t know what she would find soothing, but I needed to do something. Reaching into the mystery with the only available question left, “What would I want to hear in my final days?” I remembered hearing about a harpist coming to provide soothing music to my aunt Sherry when she was close to death.

I will take a leap of faith and change the soundtrack, find something more soothing and relevant. My only wish? That it soothed. And that she felt someone cared enough to provide soothing. And then I just sat with her. I didn’t know what else to do but to simply be with her in the mystery of not knowing, the ultimate mystery of any existence.

Today: two and half days later, the news. Sadness at a life no longer available to the rest of us. Gratitude for the transformative power of love and the small unassuming Army (Angels) of compassion that wielded its transformative power in her last days here. I’m utterly blown away!

This is a little pocket of heaven on earth; a sacred waystation for those departing for home. It doesn’t matter, the story of their life. Each life is sacred, loved, and tended. Preparation for the journey.

How do I determine who is the care-giver and the receiver in all of this? Who is the teacher and who is the student? I think I’m in over my head and the best way possible here. What a poignant blessing!