On a recent bright Saturday afternoon, I made a vigil call to New York Methodist Hospital. The patient was an elderly woman whose heart was failing.
When I arrived, a friend of hers was waiting to enter her room. This friend knew the patient from church meetings and said “Dahlia” was famous for her hugs. Dahlia’s friend, who is a nurse, told me some lovely stories about Dahlia’s spiritual, financial, and gustatorial generosity. As she reminisced, two more visitors arrived: one of Dahlia’s daughters (also a nurse) and another friend.
Having learned my lesson the last time I was with a family during a vigil, I did not introduce myself as a hospice volunteer. I said I was a volunteer with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. I let them know I could stay or go – whatever made them the most comfortable. Since I wasn’t asked to leave, I stayed. I hung back in a corner to give everyone space with Dahlia. Her breathing was labored, and her daughter was making assessments, comparing her current status with the previous day.
It is never my place to judge how families interact at this difficult time. When I was with my mother as she breathed her last, I didn’t cry. I was just so exhausted (and a little relieved) that I just couldn’t muster the tears. It did not stop another person in the room from asking me, “Where are your tears?” So based on my own experience, it wasn’t appropriate to tell this family what to do or how to react in these final moments, but after the daughter took her mother’s pulse for the fourth time and measured her respirations by placing her hand on her mother’s chest, I felt I needed to change the room’s atmosphere and make it more spiritual and less clinical.
Recognizing that church was important to Dahlia, I asked her daughter if Dahlia has a favorite hymn. She conferred with the others in the room and began to sing “I’m Satisfied with Jesus.” I didn’t recognize the hymn, but my knowledge of hymns is far from encyclopedic. As they sang, they relaxed and Dahlia’s breath slowed. Shortly after the song ended, Dahlia passed from this world.
The experience reinforced my understanding that we are present in the room to provide comfort to all who are there. When I am with patients alone, my role is to make the space as peaceful and calm as possible. When I am with the patient and her family, my role is no different, but the path can be a little more fraught. Finding new ways to provide spiritual comfort for strangers is a continuing education for volunteers. If you have suggestions or resources for us, especially when working with all different faith traditions, I know we would appreciate it.
A beautiful story and this work helps those who remain.— Katherine / September 19th, 2012 at 4:57 pm
Thank you so much, Katherine. Appreciating the richness and potential of each moment is something I am trying to do in my professional life as well as my volunteer life.— Abby / September 19th, 2012 at 6:40 pm