Working with Death Wednesday: Hospice

Piper Bayard is a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She’s also a belly dancer from waaaay back, and she currently pens post-apocalyptic sci-fi and spy novels when she isn’t shooting, SCUBA diving, blogging, baking cookies, or chauffeuring her children to their teenaged immediacies.

DW:  Why did you want to become a hospice volunteer?
PB: When my mother was dying, my husband, young children and I were her only present family. She was in a nice nursing home, and I visited her every day, but she was often frightened and confused when I wasn’t there. I frequently wished for someone to sit with her when I couldn’t. A couple of years after she crossed over, I felt strong enough to volunteer with Hospice for the express purpose of being there for people the way I wished someone had been there for my mother and me.

DW: What was the training like?
PB: The training was thought-provoking and reassuring. I worried that I wouldn’t know what to say or do with strangers. The teachers really helped us with that, practicing both common scenarios and the more bizarre exchanges that could come up.

DW: Did you have any personal experience with death prior to your work with hospice?
PB: Growing up on a farm, death was a natural part of life. Also, I had lost family members, and, similar to a death, I had lost my first husband to mental illness.

DW: What was the most difficult part of the work?
PB: For myself, I needed to keep my Hospice time compartmentalized. I was determined to not let my emotions about the people I visited spill over onto my family and friends. After all, I volunteered, not them.

I developed a ritual to help me do that. I washed my hands when I entered the facility, and I washed my hands when I left. For me, it symbolized putting on a certain energy and taking it off again.

DW: What was the most gratifying part of the work?
PB: I worked with Alzheimer’s patients. I found that because I did not know them before, I could see them as whole people, just the way they were, with no sense of loss.

From that perspective, I found that each of them had a hook which would open up a part of themselves that was still in there. For one patient, it was music. For another, it was wildlife.

I visited Mrs. G several times and got exactly no response from her. She was a painter in her youth who painted landscapes so I took a book of beautiful Irish landscapes on the theory that she might enjoy the scenes. Nothing. I couldn’t tell if she knew I was there.

Then one day, I took my dog, Daisy. When Daisy walked in, Mrs. G woke up. She couldn’t care less that I was there, but she talked Daisy, and you’d never know how unresponsive she was only moments before. After a few minutes, I sat beside her and pulled out the book of Irish landscapes. The longest she was ever ‘present’ was 20 minutes or so, but that it happened at all felt like a miracle.

Over the months I visited Mrs. G, she made jokes about the landscapes, and she told me about her sister, the dancer, who danced for the Queen. And I learned from her daughter that she’d once had a dog that looked exactly like Daisy.

Daisy was the hook that gave me a peek into her mind. There is nothing like finding that hook and discovering the beautiful person who is still very much there, even if I can only see them for a few moments at a time. Now that Daisy is crossed over, too, I like to think she is visiting Mrs. G.

DW:  Did you learn anything about the dying process that you'd like to share?
PB: I learned that all things happen as they should, and that everyone’s death is their own. It doesn’t belong to spouses, parents, or children.

DW: How about grieving? Were most people surrendering to the idea of death, or were they afraid?
PB: Because I worked with Alzheimer’s patients, they were generally happily unaware that they were dying. However, my mother was, I think, fairly typical for a non-Alzheimer’s patient. She was in denial sometimes, and at other times angry, sad, and, more rarely, accepting. She showed all stages of the Kubler Ross grief cycle, and often on the same day. By the end, though, she was ready.

DW:  Any unusual stories?
PB: Again, the unusual story comes from my mother rather than from my official patients. For days she spoke to “someone” in a light that only she could see, telling them, “No. I can’t get what I need on that side.” She was waiting for a specific person to visit her, and none of us thought he would come.

She basked in that invisible light, talking to the people she saw in it and telling the people here who blocked it to move out of the way. Then, she quit eating, drinking, and talking as she hung between worlds, ‘actively dying’ for days.

Suddenly on the fourth day of actively dying, she woke up, got up, and started drinking water again. She by golly wasn’t going anywhere until she got her visitor, the one none my family hadn’t heard from in days.

Sure enough, I got the call from the nursing home that night, warning me that he was there. She died a few hours later with him at her side. Like I said, each person’s death is their own, and it’s so not about us.