My infant son died in 1965 of spinal meningitis at the age of 13 months. I was so incredibly scarred by this event that for a decade I could not be in the same room with a small child. And then, one day, I noticed that I was enjoying looking at the sweet smile of a baby, without any pain. Somehow, I had healed from that terrible wound.
In the mid-1980s, I decided to go through the training in Boulder to become a Hospice volunteer. Since I already knew some people who were acting as volunteers, I knew that I would have to deal with that loss, and try to come to grips with any residual feelings in order to complete the healing. And you know, that is exactly what happened.
My first patient, Carl, a man in his sixties, had an inoperable brain tumor. They tell you all this before you agree to volunteer. His wife, Doris, needed someone to come and sit with Carl while she went grocery shopping and took care of herself. He was not expected to live more than three months. Once a week, I spent a few hours in the middle of the day (I was working part-time on a regular schedule) with them. I grew to love them both, and I kept a journal back then. Here is a significant passage:
(2/15/84) Dear Journal, I haven't yet told you about Carl, my first Hospice patient, and a dear, sweet, ego-less man. A beautiful thing happened last night: I allowed myself to care about both Carl and Doris, in a new way that helps me to deal with the situation. I crawled under the kitchen table to put Carl's slippers on -- we had forgotten them when we put him in his wheelchair -- and I put the slippers on his feet. I heard in my mind, very clearly, "Whatsoever you do unto the least of me, you do also to me." The image of Jesus came into my mind. When I got up from under the table, Carl said, "I felt just like Jesus." It astounded me. And earlier, when I first arrived and was checking on him, he looked at me and said, "You're a good girl." It was like someone else had spoken through him, to me.I spent some very significant moments with Carl, but that moment was the most incredible thing. I watched him deteriorate over the months, and sometimes I would be shocked when I would walk into the room. I remember once saying, "Carl, how are you feeling?" (He looked terrible.) And he smiled mischievously at me and held his hands in front of him and said, "With my hands, of course."
Carl died at home on May 13, 1984, almost exactly at the three-month point we had been promised together. I learned a great deal from my volunteer experience, and I will never forget him.
But I could not continue for long. It takes its toll on the volunteers and the nurses. I met wonderful people in the program, the doctors, the nurses, the other volunteers, and the patients and their families. My last patient was a young woman with hepatic cancer. She didn't live long. But I couldn't take it any more and stopped volunteering. It's one thing when people have lived a full life, and quite another to confront your own fears when someone your age dies.
I have had much more loss over the years; we all learn to deal with it. Those two significant years prepared me for those losses in a way that I cannot adequately describe. I highly recommend it. The Boulder Hospice training gave me the tools I needed, and I still use them.