I recently trained to serve as a hospice volunteer. I felt drawn to the idea that nobody should be alone in life’s demise and even more there is something profoundly spiritual in death that beckons witnessing. And so it is that I experienced the death of my first hospice patient recently. Nothing could prepare my heart for all that would touch it, speak to it, move it and expand it.
My time with my hospice patient lasted about ten weeks. She was quite old and had been in care for years. She shared a room with three other people. From the moment I met her, took in her circumstance and began my companioning of her, my heart recognized her resilient spirit. Her diminishments – mental capacity and hearing – made typical paths of communication challenging and midway through our time together she declined further rendering our only way to communicate to touch.
In that moment, she became my teacher. I entered into be-ing with her in ways that we are mostly oblivious of in life. I would take her hand, massage cream into it and speak with her about how I imagined her life through her beautiful hands. I would also smooth cream on her face and soothe her brow. When she tried to speak, I would reassure her and calm her with touch letting her know I was right there with her. She shared her anxiety with her eyes so I would gaze into her eyes and hold her there. Nothing could prepare my heart for this intimacy between two women who had been strangers in all ways but our hearts.
Touch became our companioning vehicle in the sacred space of death’s vigil, the unspoken language of touch that she helped me learn was love at work between us, through us and among us. This was truly self-emptying love and its intensity expands the waiting heart in ways that escape words.
“The first shall be last… thee who want to lead must serve…” Now I see how she who was last in this world, became first and I learned how to lead by serving – by be-ing present and open to the encounter. In her strained moments as she faded, I soothed her brow, spoke soft words of encouragement and mirrored mutual spirit – hers and mine. Love’s powerful presence offered safety and dignity as together we ‘bore the eternal mystery’. And G*d grew with us, in us and through us. Somehow, I believe that the intimacy of presence made it possible for her to let go, to change – to re-mem-ber. As I left her and kissed her goodbye I said: “Remember that you are love and now you are returning to love.”
The world sees hospice as demanding, depleting work. But I know that the intimacy of connection that she allowed me expanded my heart’s capacity for compassion and unity. I know that her gifts to me outweigh my humble gifts of time visiting her.