The first time I was drawn to being a hospice volunteer I was interviewing a singer-songwriter.
Listening as she talked about taking her guitar into the room of a patient who would cross over as she sang, hearing the reverence in her voice, and sensing a fullness apart from what her life as a performing musician brought her, I was mesmerized in a way I didn’t expect.
She talked about the ache and the wonder of attending such a passage and her fear that whatever she had to share would somehow be inadequate in the face of riving loss and fathomless mystery. And yet, her open-hearted presence was all that was required of her. In wanting to offer some gift, of solace, of empathy, of quiet support, it was she who had walked away with a profound gratitude for being received into such an intimate space.
Of course, we talked about her music and the shaping of her career but long after our interview, it was her experience with the dying that I repeatedly returned to in my mind. But I didn’t act on my curiosity, simply filed it away among the meandering path of interests I was always promising myself I’d explore.
Yet something about that world would inevitably beckon: when a hospice program was being created in the community where I worked, when I became friends with a woman who spent her days caring for leaving loved ones and grieving families, when I stumbled into conversation after conversation about embracing the journey with kindness and compassion. I heard stories of heartbreak and wearying conflict, yes, but more often than not, there was peace and healing and a dignity that seemed missing from the culture of death that I knew — those spaces so full of fear and acrimony, of a desperation to hold on and bungling attempts to let go.
I wanted to know what it was like to be both witness and midwife to that journey in a way that honored the dying process. To give my heart to the sorrow and hope, the courage and humor, the exquisite humanity in it all.
It may have seemed a completely divergent direction from my deeply joyful work as a wedding officiant — and indeed a fellow officiant who was a hospice nurse often shared the exhausting demands of that vocation — but I saw performing weddings and attending the dying and their families as part of the same offering of heart, the same practice of mindful transitioning. Both foster a deep connection to an experience of living and loving, even in their wholly disparate settings.
Still, the more I was drawn to volunteering in hospice care, the more choices I tended to make to carry me down other roads … until I was finally ready, and then forced to put that desire on hold, when my mom’s longtime partner died swiftly and suddenly of cancer, and a year later I also lost my dad. After experiencing a personal loss, there is generally at least a one-year minimum waiting period before one can become a hospice volunteer. Flattened by consecutive losses, I didn’t know when I’d be ready to enter that world with any sense of equilibrium.
And so as the raw edge of my grief softened, I gave myself to another dream. I poured my energy into traveling to Africa as an orphanage volunteer. That was in the summer of 2015 and while I told myself I would not jump into anything new upon my return, as I processed such an intensely transformational trip, I believe I am ready to open up my life to another calling.
Why else, out of all the people I could have sat down next to at a church picnic a few months ago, did I find myself sharing a table with a woman who worked as a chaplain. As we lost ourselves in conversation, she shared with me some of her experiences with the dying and their loved ones once I told her of my ever-present, if occasionally dormant, nudge toward hospice care. Just as we were about to go our separate ways, a leaf, in the shape of a heart, floated down between us, landing amid our empty plates. It seemed to me as much a blessing for the path as the hug she gave me.
A few weeks later, I would meet a man at a poetry festival and as we chatted, initially about being festival virgins and the poets we’d seen that day, the talk drifted to his former life as a chaplain. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in a deeply personal conversation about death and the gifts hidden in its heavy folds.
That connection only reinforced the silent tug, though I am not sure the role of chaplain, which encompasses so much more than the care of the dying, is for me. Still when a friend told me about an opening in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Jefferson University Hospital, it seemed the perfect chance to explore whether such work would be a rewarding fit — until I learned the training doesn’t accommodate those with a full-time job.
So I began requesting information from various hospice volunteer programs in the area. I purchased the memoir written by an old friend and longtime hospice nurse. I looked into classes at the Art of Dying Institute in New York City.
They may be small steps but they are planting seeds and, somewhere, opening doors through which I will one day walk. Though I sometimes flounder when thinking about my future, reaching for, and just as quickly discarding, new ideas for my personal evolution, my life has been speaking to me for quite a while. It always seems to know the direction I’m meant to travel, if I can tune in long enough to listen.
But beyond those seemingly random conversations and encounters that keep affirming my next steps, there is more compelling me toward this work.
When my dad died, I was with him in those final days, at his side when his gaze became distant, his breath a thinning note. I remember how we sang to him, my cousin, aunts and I, in those last moments. The rain of our prayers upon his gaunt frame. The hands, fanning like wings against his skin. The words, wishes, blessings ushering him to his release … how we traversed such agonizing terrain with infinite tenderness.
And I remember how he left, a sudden absence filling the room, even as his features settled into a deep and luminous serenity. I brought my cheek next to his, leaning into that light, letting my lips linger on the coolness of his forehead — stunned that death could bear the balm of such a vast, enveloping love even while breaking the heart.
I know this is not the story of every death, that hospice work can be a journey to dark and challenging places. But I also know that death has its own beauty, invites its own remarkable grace. And to play even a small part in holding such sacred space for that last goodbye can only be a gift.