Death comes to everyone.
It takes compassion and understanding to be a hospice/palliative care volunteer who is trained to be a companion with a listening role for both the dying and their family.
Susan Peck has volunteered for the past year.
“I always felt I wanted to do this type of volunteer work,” she said.
“I lost both my parents suddenly and didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, however I did get that chance with my stepmother and it was a very different journey.”
Peck’s role with hospice/palliative care is to visit people in the Hospice/Respite unit at Dunrovin Park Lodge where she introduces herself and is available should the person or their family need anything.
“Hospice is the best environment for both those dying and their families,” she added.
“Everyone gets a lot out of being here and it eases many of the issues including medical.”
Peck also commented that today’s society is a death-denying one.
“150 years ago people died at home with everyone around them.”
James Waldon has been a hospice/palliative care volunteer for the past 12 years and sees his role as reaching out to the community and helping people at the worst time in their lives.
His volunteer work takes him mostly to home visits as well as co-facilitating the grief recovery group.
“It keeps me going, I know the pain and suffering and I want to help others,” he said.
Once families request a volunteer, that volunteer becomes part of the patient’s health care team and provides input on the patient’s health management.
A request for hospice/palliative volunteer services can result from information supplied by medical staff, word of mouth or other sources and as a result, volunteers are assigned to the person living with a life-threatening illness and their family.
Maureen Upton also has 12 years of hospice/palliative care volunteer experience.
“Sometimes the first thing they need is a bit of respite from the bedside of a loved one,” she said.
“Death has no time line and families can burn out.”
She added many don’t have family close by and volunteers fill the gaps when family can’t be there.
As a companion with a listening role, Upton said they certainly talk of dying but often its just conversations about life.
Upton said it was an honour to be the person the dying person confides in.
Waldon added volunteers help families in the transition from this life to the next.
“As they progress and get sicker, families get exhausted and we’re there to sit with the person,” he said.
“We are a comfort to those who don’t want to die alone. Providing comfort, even just the presence of another person or a hand on their shoulder, can be a help and its very rewarding to the volunteer knowing they’ve been of service.”
Every volunteer receives a minimum of 30 hours training before they take up their duties and part of that training is being able to handle death in the context of their own lives.
“We’re a happy lot in general and we laugh a lot,” Peck said.
Upton added everything said to a volunteer is confidential.
“We’re not known as chatty,” she said.
Karin Lynch, co-ordinator of volunteers and grief support for the Quesnel and District Hospice Palliative Care Association (QDHPCA), said being comfortable with discussions about death and dying is important for those grieving.
However, she added part of her role is monitoring volunteers and keeping them refreshed.
“Volunteers have said that being a volunteer has helped them through their own grieving,” Lynch said.
“Learning and experiencing death this way is non-stressful.”
Peck said often, for the volunteer, it’s giving back, especially if they’ve reaped the benefits of a palliative care volunteer.
But every volunteer’s primary concern is what the patient wants or needs.
“Not all patients are maudlin,” Upton said.
“Some just want to talk about their life.”
She said they often read to patients and they also sing and pray if that’s what the person wants.
Waldon added each situation is different and volunteers use their own judgement as to what patients’ needs are and how personal the conversation becomes.
Lynch said they always advise families to come visit sooner rather than later while the dying can still communicate.
“However, at the moment of death the goal is to have peace – whatever that means to the person,” she said.
If this kind of volunteering appeals to you, sign up is ongoing. Each potential volunteer must have a criminal record search, references, be interviewed and participate in 30 hours of training before volunteering begins. The program focuses on the philosophy of hospice palliative care, the role of the volunteer and the health care team. Communication skills, self-awareness and issues surrounding death and dying, spirituality, cultural awareness, grief and loss and self care are explored. Volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of three hours a week.
QDHPCA volunteers support individuals and families in their homes, in hospital, in the hospice unit, in residential care and also offers a bereavement support group.
For information on becoming a volunteer or those in need of volunteer services, contact Lynch at 250-985-5815.