Months ago, I decided to explore volunteering for a hospice organization.
My initial curiosity came up when I contemplated wanting to use my talents for listening and putting things into words. I envisioned being able to help terminally ill patients write letters that crystallized unexpressed feelings and attain a sort of peace.
I wanted to be of service, but I largely was motivated by the thought of doing something I do well. This didn’t seem right to me. The spirit of volunteering demanded that my efforts had to be FOR the people I wanted to serve.
I researched hospice organizations. Almost two months after submitting an application, my first shift took place.
Understanding that hearing is generally the last sense to leave a person, I put together a few playlists on Spotify that I could play on my phone as I sat bedside.
I had classical mixes and assembled a wonderful set of gospel tunes, but that’s not what I was called to provide.
The staff social worker directed me to visit Pete, whose family was coming in later in the morning. I was told he really liked Otis Redding.
When I stepped into his room, I introduced myself and asked if I could sit and visit for a while even though I knew he couldn’t answer me. I sat by his bed and fumbled with my phone. I felt unprepared.
I babbled short acknowledgments out loud, like confirming that his family was going to come in soon, and, in my head, wished him peace.
I looked for changes in his demeanor, trying to discern whether a small unconscious body movement reflected distress and warranted a call to the nurse, as I finally located “This is Otis Redding,” on my phone app.
His eyes were open but expressionless while we listened to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” I noticed that the time he took between breaths was getting longer, but his inhalations were not labored. He wasn’t agitated. The next track started.
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see.
No, I won’t be afraid.
No, I won’t be afraid.
Just as long as you stand by me
Stand by me.
Maybe there were monitors at the nursing station which tipped them off, but a nurse and doctor walked into the room. The doctor put her hands on the patient’s shoulder. Pete took a few more breaths before the doctor checked his vitals and called time of death.
When I first sat down, I was worried about being prepared with the right soundtrack and whether I was a good observer and reporter for medical staff, then I noticed this preoccupation fade away.
I can’t say that my presence in the room or hearing a favorite song made a difference to him, but you just never know. I stopped thinking about myself. I was grateful for the experience.
Letting someone know they’re not alone is no small thing.
Deborah Hawkins is a writer, a workshop facilitator, and a researcher.
SEED QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: How do you relate to the notion that you never know what can make a difference to someone? Can you share a personal story of a time you let someone know they're not alone? What helps you stop thinking about yourself?