‘There, it’s OK to die’
Madeline Weinland ’10 wasn’t even planning on going to the annual Involvement Fair during her first week at Denison. But, moving reluctantly through the sea of tables on the quad, she came upon the table of Denison Community Association’s hospice volunteers. Here, she thought, was an opportunity to make a true difference in someone else’s life. Over the next four years, she visited patients and helped nurses in the Selma Markowitz Care Center at Licking Memorial Hospital. During her junior and senior years, she conducted “life reviews” with patients using the services of Hospice of Central Ohio. The experience changed the way she thinks about life and death. It also helped Weinland—now an aspiring writer and graduate student at Lehigh University— realize that everyone has a story to tell. Here, we share excerpts of an interview in which she describes some of the other lessons that hospice has taught her.
I thought that as a college student, I had advantages and certain privileges that I could use to help the outside community. I wanted to do something that would be out of my comfort zone and that would actually make a difference, and hospice seemed like the perfect way to do that.
Death is something that’s very difficult to talk about, and nobody really does. I’ve always been pretty comfortable with hospital terms and talking about the body and things that are happening to it, but hospice is a sensitive and serious subject that, at first, scared me. But the people at the Involvement Fair told me that hospice was not about death, but about enhancing life. It was an opportunity, rather, to make people’s lives better while it still remains. Volunteering at hospice sounded challenging to me—it was exciting and scary at the same time to force myself to confront these ideas, so I signed up.
In hospice training they teach us what happens to a person’s body in the final stages of life, and we do physical training of how to move somebody out of a bed, how to put someone in wheelchair, and how to apply a bedpan. A lot of the visits that you make in hospice are to people without family. We usually go and talk to the patients who don’t have people visiting them. In that case, they really want to talk to you and they really reach out to you.
Hospice not only gave me an appreciation for life itself and removed my fear of death, but it also gave me an appreciation for individual life stories.
One of the things I really enjoyed in the trainings is how to listen to somebody. You practice talking and repeating back what they say and really zoning into somebody and blocking everything else out. This also really helps me when I conduct life reviews.
In life reviews, I interview people in their final stages of life. I bring in an audio recorder and ask them questions about their life and let them talk about what is important to them and what they want to be remembered by. It assures the hospice patient that their life won’t be forgotten and gives them that sense that their life had meaning. After they pass away, hospice takes the audio recording of this interview and puts it on CDs and gives it to the family. This way, they have a record of stories that would have otherwise been lost, and can hear their loved one’s voice whenever they want.
We’re taught in life review training is that it’s okay to get emotional. A lot of times they will cry, and it’s okay if you cry with them. In training they teach us that it’s okay to feel—emotion is going to come out during the interview, and to let that happen.
The number one thing I’ve learned from volunteering in hospice and doing life reviews is that you don’t have to be scared of death. Death has this stigma about it, that it’s just something that will happen and we don’t think or talk about it. Hospice is a setting where death is a known thing and is accepted in a lot of the cases. There, it’s okay to die. Our jobs at hospice as volunteers are to make the process as comfortable as possible, and that’s shown me that there are so many ways to make life good in the final stages that makes death not scary. It has made me personally be less afraid of the subject and of dying in general.
For more moving insights about hospice work, read “Holy Ground,” an essay by Andrea Ruehrwein Raynor ’83, which appeared in the summer 2010 Denison Magazine, and was part of a larger collection of essays, The Voice That Calls You Home.