Ch. 20: Hospice volunteering

hos·pice noun
/ˈhäspəs/
a program designed to provide palliative care and emotional support to the terminally ill in a home or homelike setting so that quality of life is maintained and family members may be active participants in care; also a facility that provides such a program

I didn’t belong here at this intimate moment, perhaps life’s most intimate moment. It was not what I had planned, but here I am.

The patient I had come to see was actively dying just a few feet away as a relative, perhaps a sister, crouched next to her softly singing hymns into her ear.

I am there as a hospice volunteer. 

Earlier that morning her husband had asked me to visit to record his wife’s life story not realizing that her death was imminent. 

Now he was looking at me hoping I could help him understand what was happening or perhaps even to prevent it.

Not for the first time I wondered how I found myself there at that particular moment at this time in my life.

I can’t say why for sure, but I have long had a more than ordinary interest in death and dying.

Long ago I had intellectually accepted that death awaited us all, and I never considered it “morbid” to acknowledge and discuss the significance of that reality.

Perhaps that was because my grandmother would often tell me when we parted company that we might not see one another again because she could die, even though there was no obvious reason for that being so.

In my 20s I read several books about death and dying, and as part of a graduate school project I interviewed morticians, elderly people, and religious leaders about their perspectives on dying.

I knew that when I eventually left my job at the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), which required a great deal of travel, I wanted to be a hospice volunteer. I also knew that I wanted to support hospice patients and their families in telling and preserving their life stories.

I have always admired those who do hospice work. Nurses, doctors, social workers, and spiritual care providers. In my view they are as close to angels as I am likely to encounter.

I felt drawn to hospice volunteering because I believe that people can learn important things throughout their life spans, even until the very end of life, and because it would allow me to meaningfully apply skills I had spent a life-time developing—particularly being fully present and listening deeply. 

In addition, I thought it likely that hospice patients and their families would teach me important lessons about living life fully now, and that those lessons would support me when it became my time to navigate that passage.

I was not entirely confident about what to say or do around dying people and their loved ones, but I eventually learned that human presence was sufficient and that words were often unnecessary.

In 2010 I created a volunteer position for myself that enabled me over the next several years to make dozens of video and audio recordings of patients’ life stories, often told in conversation with family members.

That was how I found myself in a living room with a dying woman whom I had never met, knowing that it was too late to do what I had come to do, but not too late to offer whatever comfort I could to her husband, taking my leave a few minutes later as family members and friends began to fill the house.

Have you ever felt “called” to do a particular thing, and, if so, what effect did that calling have on your life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

1 Response to “Ch. 20: Hospice volunteering”


  1. 1 Lois Easton March 11, 2020 at 11:36 am

    This is inspiring, Dennis. I have often thought of volunteering at a hospice because I’m not (yet, anyway) like you comfortable with the idea of death. Perhaps, once again, you are mentoring me through your book and blog. Thank you! Lois


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