by Michel Magee, Hospice Volunteer, from the Spring 1997 Hospice Currents Newsletter
Initiation into Hospice Care of Nantucket Volunteer training program last October began with a 20 page questionnaire called “Personal Death Awareness.” Aside from the rustle of pages and an occasional sigh, our group of eighteen fell silent for the next hour as we explored our own hopes, fears, and spiritual beliefs about dying and death, as well as our experiences with significant losses and grief.

The sighs- punctuated by a chuckle or two- amplified when the questionnaire even invited us to pen our own obituaries! That task proved the most difficult. And yet, as Georgia Snell, one of several guest lecturers in the coming eight weeks put it so succinctly, “In order to be helpful, you must answer your own questions about death….”

Notwithstanding our diversity in age, background, profession, and temperament, a common denominator surfaced: We held that no life should end in suffering or be unattended. Indeed, a peaceful, dignified, and natural end to life is at the heart of the modern hospice movement. A volunteer’s goal is to be a helpful participant in that process. The companion goal of a hospice volunteer is also to offer support to those who have experienced a loss through death of a loved one, be it relative, a friend, or even a beloved pet.

The roots of the modern hospice philosophy reach deep into antiquity. Among the first records of palliative care is that of a way station erected in Jerusalem in the 11th century A.D. By definition “palliative means to: mitigate, alleviate or abate the violence of pain, disease, or other evil.” Founded by a group of local merchants (later titled “The Poor Brethren of the Hospital of St. John) the purpose of this hospice prototype was to accommodate sick and weary pilgrims on their journey. During the Crusades, as the movement migrated to the island of Cyprus the caregivers became known as the Knights Hospitallers. It was there for the first time, in the city of Rhodes, that those who were at the end of life’s journey were set apart from the weary for the greatest and tenderest of care.

This simple act formed the cornerstone to hospice as we know it today: the sacred gift of life can end with dignity; and those who cannot be cured, may still be healed by compassion and understanding.

In contrast to hospice workers of long ago who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their order; and contrary to the widely held notion today, owning a hair shirt or being a saint is not a prerequisite to becoming a hospice volunteer. No one in our class, for example, offered sainthood as an occupation-or even a hobby. Nor did halos roll out the door and down the hall during frequent breaks. Rather, we were ordinary people motivated to help other ordinary people through what is a normal, yet undeniably difficult passage.

If empathy was the wellspring in becoming volunteers, the experience shared by health care professionals and seasoned volunteers became our touchstone. A physician and nurses, a social worker; stress management consultant; minister; lay grief counselor and funeral director each played a role in our training.We learned that effectively managing and alleviating pain are primary concerns of hospice care; that emotional suffering is bearable when shared; that stress can be reduced as much by a shift in perception as by a simple breathing technique; and that nothing is more therapeutic to the dying or to the bereaved than simply “being there” and “listening with the heart.”

When the course ended we shared our thoughts and feelings about the thirty some class hours spent in preparation. There were many comments on the training’s exceeding expectations. Each of us voiced our appreciation to the program director, Charlene Thurston, RN, ANP, and Nancy Adam, Coordinator of Volunteers, for their excellent presentation of the materials and the selection of guest speakers. Several remarks focused on the bold honesty that comes in facing mortality. And we spoke,too, of the privilege of attending those who are at life’s end and of hoping to do and say the “right thing.”

This writer came away from the experience thinking that every member of our community could be personally enriched by information offered by Hospice Care of Nantucket. In much the same way as knowing First Aid helps to prepare one for unexpected events, having realistic expectations of life’s end can lessen the anxiety. Like faith and other virtues that sustain us in times of sorrow, knowledge of the process is an ally.

In the end, there is no weapon against death; no bomb shelter against grief. We have only one another.What a comfort to know that, in the end, it is enough.

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Funded by the Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket Foundation, the Palliative & Supportive Care Program is operated as a department of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which is an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare. Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket is a specialized health care program dedicated to providing excellent physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care to persons with life-threatening illness and their families.

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