Today on the blog, I have Heather Conn. We met at Goucher College and I am so grateful that she is willing to share her story about hospice with me and with you.
What led you to becoming a volunteer with hospice?
When my father was dying in 2010, I saw how well I could relate to him when others in my family seemed embarrassed, uncomfortable or overly stressed. For instance, when he was having hallucinations due to heavy pain medication, I would respond to what he said, entering into and engaging with him in his fantasy worlds while other loved ones just ignored him. They thought it was silly. My mom even felt too embarrassed to have people visit him! Others seemed to keep their distance or else talk about him as if he wasn’t there, even when he was conscious. Instead, I sat right on his bed and spoke to him directly. I felt like he wanted and needed connection and validation.
Even though I lived thousands of miles away, I was the one who took charge during a brief visit to get my dad into hospice after a friend of his suggested this. I achieved this within a matter of days. My normally efficient oldest sister, who appeared overwhelmed and out of her element, seemed to find it too challenging to deal with such an intensely emotional and demanding situation. That’s when I started to realize that my compassionate coping skills and willingness to face matters head on, which I had mostly taken for granted, could be valuable in helping others deal with death and dying.
What do you do as a volunteer?
I do a variety of tasks, from meeting and talking regularly with people who are dying, either at home or in a hospice bed, to listening and providing comfort to those who have recently lost a loved one. Our hospice training emphasized the need for excellent listening skills and no judgments. I’ve played Scrabble with companions, listened to their music, watched their favourite movies, shared tea and homemade goodies, listened to fears, concerns, dreams etc. I have also sat silent vigil at the bedside of someone who is dying so that they are not alone.
My very first hospice companion died in my presence when no one expected this at all. Her mom and several friends had just visited, then left. I stood next to her. She was unconscious and I just said to her, “There is a lot of love around you. If you would like to go, go.” Several times, she scrunched up her face and shoulders, and then after a few minutes, she was gone. It felt like a great honour to be there with her. I was also at my father’s bedside when he died.
I participate in various annual hospice activities such as Lights of Life and Lighting the Memories. For Lights of Life, we encourage people at Christmas time to write a message on a small card to a loved one who has passed and they then hang it on a Christmas tree next to our display table. We invite people to give a donation but it’s not mandatory. Sometimes children like to write a card to the memory of their grandparent or even a pet. Strangers come out to our table and share stories of loved ones who have died. Many people just want to honour the memory of someone and have their own grief honoured.
I try to attend Lighting the Memories each year. It is a wonderful free ritual that our hospice society holds every January 1 at a nearby beach. We have a large fire and collect all the cards from the Lights of Life Christmas tree displays. We invite people to take a handful and throw them into the fire. It’s a symbolic way of feeling that the loving messages to their dead friends and family members are being released into the elements. Next to the ocean in the wind, sometimes with bald eagles flying overhead, it’s a powerful way to honour grief publicly. People openly cry. Our local Threshold Choir, which sings songs at the bedside of people who are dying, sing a few tunes written for those who are near-death and we provide inspirational readings. It feels like a warm, welcoming cocoon full of caring, compassionate souls. We share home-baked cookies and hot tea.
As a trained SoulCollage® facilitator, I led an informal gathering of a few family members and my mom to tell stories about my dad when he was dying. I placed a circle of collage cards I had made on the floor, and these evoked many positive responses and anecdotes. I have also led SoulCollage® workshops for hospice volunteers, the bereaved, and at hospice events. (You can find out more about SoulCollage® at my website www.sunshinecoastsoulcollage.ca and at the founder’s website www.soulcollage.com.)
Last year, our hospice society celebrated its 30th anniversary. I was paid to do an extensive history of the organization, interviewing some of its founders and first volunteers plus donors and so on. One was in her nineties. I wrote a series of articles on this, using different themes. It was an honour to talk to so many caring, selfless people.
What is the most challenging aspect of your service?
The most challenging thing is dealing with someone palliative who is angry and bitter and feels cheated by life or what he or she was unable to achieve. He or she might rage at the world and attach deeply to negative perspectives that don’t serve him or her. Thankfully, in six years of hospice volunteering, I have only encountered this once. Otherwise, everyone has seemed pretty accepting of their situation.
What do you find most rewarding about volunteering with hospice?
Being part of an organization that’s so devoted to selfless service, where people are loving and compassionate. We are constantly learning through workshops, guest speaker presentations etc how to be a more compassionate listener and caring companion. I appreciate that there is a spiritual yet nondenominational aspect to the work; people are truly accepting of others. There is no room for judgments about any belief system or lack of one. All are welcome. So many times at hospice I have thought of work-related meetings I’ve been at in the past, either when working for the government, in media or in the film industry. What a contrast; many times, people seemed primarily interested in just how they could get ahead. It feels much more nurturing and satisfying when people have come together to help others, rather than just to seek out ego strokes.
Also, the friendships you develop and the gratitude that people express are wonderful. One of the companions I was seeing who was dying had scribbled poems in a notebook over many decades. Our hospice coordinator asked me if I would help create a book of poems for him. I went through them, selected the ones that I thought would work and showed them to him. We arranged them together and I edited them. We created a booklet on the computer and added photos and images. Then we photocopied dozens of copies and gave them to his friends and family. His sister didn’t even know that he was a poet. That was a very rewarding experience, to fulfill someone’s dream.
Your husband is in hospice right now, can you share about that experience?
Heather and her husband and the soul collage they created.
My husband is not receiving hospice care right now but he is palliative. He was in the hospital for about a month and has been home for two months. It has been a truly exhausting but rewarding experience. We have both received so much love and support from our rural community. People drop by with food, stories, cheques, cash. It is like being held in a deep embrace. Frank gave a lot to the local community in time and expertise and now he is getting it back. Our local Legion has held fundraisers for him and some did a day-long yard sale for him. I’ve been so moved by people’s kindness and generosity, even from strangers.
Sometimes I lose my patience and feel angry and resentful and lash out at him. But this doesn’t happen very often. I have to remind myself to have compassion. It is much easier just to be a hospice companion with a stranger for about an hour and a half and then leave compared to trying to be present around the clock for your spouse who is dying. I’ve had to let go of so many dreams, goals, and expectations. We have cried together. When you are responsible for someone 24/7 it’s a whole other way of being. I’ve never had kids but I’ve told people it’s like I’ve become a new mom at age fifty-nine.
Heather Conn, MFA teaches creative writing in Port Moody and screenwriting at Powell River Digital Film School, both in British Columbia, Canada. She also works as a freelance writer/editor and writing coach. She has written for 50+ publications in North America including biographies of outstanding Indigenous Canadians for Canadian Encyclopedia. Her nonfiction has appeared in a variety of anthologies. Heather has written two nonfiction history books and a fantasy picture book. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir No Letter in Your Pocket and for her new picture book Six Stinky Feet and a Sasquatch.
She has an MFA in creation nonfiction writing from Goucher College, Baltimore, MA. Find out more at heatherconn.com.