I had the honor of working at Zen Hospice Project as Volunteer Program Manager in my twenties. As someone who had lived with chronic illness as a teenager, working with changing bodies and loss felt more natural to me than any other work I could imagine.
When I would tell people I worked in hospice, they would very often reply "wow, that must be such a sad/hard/depressing job". I'm sure I looked at them like a confused puppy, head cocked to one side, remembering the raucous laughter at the bedside that day, or the sounds of family singing, or the reverent silence as a previously estranged wife helped to bathe her husband's body as a final embodied act of forgiveness, tenderness, and love. Powerful, intense, at times overwhelming, yes. Sad, rarely.
I did not have previous relationships with the hospice residents before they arrived; I did not know them in any other form than as they appeared on our steps. I don't remember how they once threw a baseball or played the piano or cracked dirty jokes. I didn't need this person to act as my parent, or to hear my regrets, or remember the day I graduated from college, or even remember what day it was. I had it easy. It was far easier for me to accept them as they were, in each moment, and therefore to model that acceptance for those closest to them.
Every hospice program, by Medicare law, has to use volunteers as five percent of their workforce. This is interesting, right? Were they just balancing the budget or were they really onto something? Was there someone involved in writing that law who knew the power of someone existing outside professional roles? Or did they know how being around death enhances the ability to prioritize and appreciate one's life?
In a situation where everyone is playing an obligatory role– the person dying, the family members, the medical professionals showing up for their shifts, the social workers– there is one person in the room who showed up because they really wanted to be there. To do what is necessary, bound only by desire to learn, to offer, to be without professional knowledge, to be in mystery, to be human and wondering and vulnerable and questioning. Their entire job is be a human with another human who is dying.
Ideally, everyone in the room is able to hold this pure humanness. But sometimes under the guise of professionalism, or the mixed history of relationship, or the fear of death or failure, this quiet field of answerlessness reality gets overwhelmed and eliminated.
It is a gift to be that person in the room. Every hospice volunteer knows this. Every family member knows this. Many of the people applying to be volunteers at Zen Hospice Project had been through the death of a family member. They recalled the immediacy and presence offered them by the most tenuous circumstances. They caught sight of the joy of being of service in such moments, and how they emerged from the experience with new eyes, new heart, new understanding of their own capacity for connection.
And their presence cultivated and enhanced the environment, while rippling outward to affect their own families and communities, and spreading the conversation about why being in hospice is rarely sad.