Five months ago, I moved from my hometown of Chicago, IL to the Pacific Northwest to begin an AmeriCorps year of service through Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, my first full-time position after graduating from the University of Notre Dame last May. With the help of gut instincts and a strong support system, I had committed to spending one year serving as the Immigrant Community Outreach Coordinator at Care Partners Hospice & Palliative Care, a community-based non-profit located just outside of Portland, Oregon. I was to reside with four other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs), learning together how to live out the program’s core values: community, social & ecological justice, spirituality/reflection and simple living. I will admit that although I had recited my post-graduate plans dozens of times since committing, I had little conception of what my new, long-winded title really meant—nor any idea just how much this year of hospice work would bring me life.
Considering that I am now nearly halfway through my experience and that we are entering a new year, it is only natural that I have spent much of the past few weeks reflecting on my experience here. Most of this reflection, though, happened from across the world, in a small town called Kurumalloor in the state of Kerala, India. Approximately three weeks ago, I learned that my maternal grandmother, who lived in my mother’s childhood home in South India for most of her life, had passed away. Having spent the past five months engrossed in the work of accompanying the dying, I have noticed a few things, and it was this very learning which prompted me to immediately board a flight to Kerala, India, to be with my family. I knew there was nothing more important.
Hospice taught me to pay attention to the complex thoughts and feelings that arise as we grieve a loss. I can see that grief is not linear, that there are no clear-cut stages. In fact, I have come to know that nothing about death is clear-cut except that it will happen to each of us. Moreover, I have learned that encountering the death of our loved ones changes us. I can now embrace this; I allowed myself to feel moved by the experience of supporting my mother. I recognized it as integral to my developing understanding of myself as an adult daughter, one who can hold her parents, in addition to them holding her.
My time at Care Partners has given me the gift of listening to the wisdom of those close to death. My observations have taught me that death is as sacred as birth, that end-of-life work involves the family as well as the patient, that hospice is about living well in the days remaining more than dying itself, that in this healthcare field compassion and socio-emotional support blend with medical, nursing and social work practice in profound ways, and ways which help the patient feel like a person again. Most of all, my time in hospice has reminded me that we are all human beings—that we exist with limits, but that we can live with abundance, no matter our circumstances. As a hospice volunteer, I have sat with people who sing and dance with more life than even my twenty-two year old body can, who contain stories as unique as snowflakes, and who still have the need to be heard, to be seen, to be loved. In watching and working with families, I have noticed that while nothing can prevent grief, there is healing in the acceptance that your loved one lived until the very end. There is comfort in realizing that if she or he met the process with acceptance, maybe you could, too.
I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with such meaningful work at my young age, and I recognize that the lessons I am learning here in hospice will only be reiterated as I myself grow, age and, eventually, die, hopefully with the abundance of love and support I have now witnessed surrounding many of my patients and my own grandmother. From the beginning of human history and from Oregon all the way to Kerala, death remains a most sacred and human thing.