I started my nursing career at a hospice but my first job as a Registered Nurse was in the ICU. When I was in college I began volunteering at a Hospice after the tragic death of my roommate. Through the opportunity to volunteer with Hospice patients, learning how to and how not to talk about death and dying I became a nurse even before I finished school.
After I had been working in a hospital for a year, my volunteer work transitioned itself into a Per Diem nursing position at the hospice working with patients in their home at night. Being a hospice volunteer was almost more fun and encompassed greater personal experiences than my work as a nurse. Even in the most intimate moments of death and pain, as nurse that professional boundary was always there. As a volunteer, I spent time with a total of two women both dying of cancer and each of them I visited weekly for a year (not at the same time). That is rare in hospice but their health and lives continued to be punctuated with a six month prognosis and so I stayed with them. I visited, ran errands, cleaned, did laundry, cooked food, and listened to life stories over hundreds of photos. Those experiences lived with me and define my respect for life and death. It would have taken a lifetime for me to learn what those women taught me.
I learned how to listen for what was, and especially what wasn’t, being said in those frightening and uncertain moments as patients and families were struggling with all the emotion that surrounds the end of life.
I learned how to listen and I learned how important it is to have something to do and something to make you feel important, whether you are the person struggling with death or their family and friends trying not to focus on the inevitable.
I learned how to pay attention to emotions and body language.
I learned to celebrate with tears and cry without fear.
I learned that no one has the answers and that’s O.K.
I learned that the end of life looks different for each of us. For some it is the beginning of everything and for others it is the end of it all.
I learned that for some the loss of control at the end of life is worse than death itself.
I learned that even friendship has it’s limitations on trust at the end of life.
I learned that I’m not afraid of death but I am afraid of not living.
This week This American Life dedicated one act of their podcast to death. In searching to learn about death, they sought answers from the people who know it best: Hospice Nurses. What I could write about this podcast will not ever do it justice. Please listen to it. Please share it.
In their exploration of this topic, the writers and producers of This American Life honored more than the process and experience of death and loss; they honored the profession of Nursing.
Happy Nurses Week to the beautiful, amazing people who give of themselves every day! I couldn’t imagine dedicating myself to any greater purpose than the service of others.
Dedicated in loving memory to: Bev, Lauren, & Michelle