Deathbed Visits With the Living

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11 Jun 2009

“I don’t see how you do it,” someone said when I mentioned I was a hospice volunteer. Fear hung in the air. Death. How can you be so close? Why would you want to? Many think the work depressing, but my hospice work isn’t grim. Each situation has come with its own hidden gift be it watching the love between parent and child, witnessing the anger and tentative resolution of one’s fate, sometimes even my own ingenuity at bringing a moment of calm to a distressed client.

It’s not something I ever thought I would do. And it’s probably not for everyone. But it works for me; it gives something to me. Maybe it was the contradictory experiences of two grandparents’ deaths which propelled me to hospice work.

The image of my grandfather’s face, gaunt, yellowed, his lips drawn back from his teeth, is seared into my memory. He was teetering on death’s edge in a hospital room. My aunt and I went for a cup of coffee and as so frequently happens with such vigils, his spirit left his body, and our world, in our few moment’s absence. Time has softened the horror of that afternoon: the grim image of his final days in the hospital, tethered to the institutional care of IV, the whir of the nearby machines, the starched efficiency of the hospital’s caring, and overworked, staff.

The next bedside vigil didn’t arrive until eighteen years later. My grandmother (on the other side of the family) died at home in her own bed, a beneficiary of hospice care. I was with her at the end and her caregiver’s matter-of-factness and strength made what might have been a traumatic experience something beautiful and sacred. My grandmother had been a constant and loving presence my entire life. We had that bond. During successive visits I had watched her fail. On our last visit she was barely conscious; her breath weakened by the hour. Toward midnight I slipped out to catch some sleep only to be awakened by a clap of thunder some time later. “Grandma’s gone,” the nurse said. And so she was.

I’d always mentally chastised those who said “passed on” instead of using the unvarnished realistic word “dead.” But the phrase now makes sense. My grandmother’s dying was a process, a journey if you will from vibrant and devoted balabusta, wife, mother and grandmother to ill and frail and finally bedridden with all that brings. Being there while she died was simply witnessing her journey’s final step. My grandmother is certainly non-euphemistically dead. Yet I felt a power, a mystery imbuing her final days that have left me with an understanding of “passing on”.

Saying Kaddish for my grandmother I met a widow who became a friend. Our grief drew us to one another. “B.” had my grandmother’s smoker’s cough. And her sharp features. And wouldn’t you know, she was also a hospice volunteer. When I told B. I was thinking of learning how to volunteer, she invited me along on some of her visits. One afternoon was a bit traumatic through no fault of anyone’s but Fate. The volunteer coordinator assured me that was the exception, not the rule. The other visits, B. assured me, were more in keeping with what I could expect. And so the seed was planted.

B. and I lost touch. I heard through the shul grapevine that she was dying of cancer and had gone to her daughter’s out of town. Does Emily Post have a chapter on reconnecting with dying acquaintances? I couldn’t write a get well card. Dropping B. a note to catch up and not mention her health crisis seemed beyond the bounds of good taste. And I certainly couldn’t write a note that said, “I heard you are dying. I am so sorry.” Struggling and guilty I let the moment pass.

But I did enroll in the volunteer hospice training sessions. My first client a woman whose husband was actually the hospice client. My role was to be a companion to Mrs. S. We went grocery shopping and errand running. We went to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream and talked about any number of things women talk about. Her mind was sharp; her memories long. She had been a hidden child during the Shoah and had married after the war. Her life had been hard; she did what needed doing. When she discovered that I spoke French we switched to that language during many of our visits.

Her husband had been languishing for going on seven years and during our eighteen months together Mrs. S. often asked, “Why?” Why her? Why this illness that was stealing her husband from her inch by inch? When would it end? And then one day, on our way home from a visit to the hearing aid center she said that she had never believed in God. “Why should I?” she said. The Shoah’s long shadow settled between us. And then she went on to tell me what had changed her mind.

“My husband has been sick for seven long years,” she said, “and there have been so many kind people, so many wonderful people from Jewish Family Services who have helped. Why have they been so nice? Why would total strangers want to help us out? There can be no reason other than God has sent them to me.” I didn’t say it then but thought that maybe that’s why her husband was taking so long to die, why he had rallied and then failed, rallied and failed over the course of seven long and painful years.

When Mrs. S. called four days later to tell me her husband had died, I wasn’t surprised. I was out of town and couldn’t attend the funeral. During our next visit I reminded her of our conversation the week before. Seven is a mystical number in Judaism and I floated the idea that maybe, just maybe, her husband had been ill for so long so that she could believe in God again. She didn’t pooh-pooh the idea. It was time for me to move on as a hospice volunteer.

One afternoon I received a call from the JFS volunteer coordinator. “We have a very special woman who is dying of cancer. She was living with her daughter but wanted to come home to die. We think you’d be just right for her.” “Sure,” I replied. “What’s her name?” I asked, reaching for a pencil. When she said B.’s name I got the chills. Fate had stepped in, giving me a chance to close a circle.

She was gaunt, made skeletal by cancer. But her eyes glowed with a luminosity I remembered from my grandmother’s bedside. B. and I caught up. I didn’t know then that we would only have three or so visits together. I met her son during one of her visits. To watch him interact with his mother was not just to watch mother and son. I felt more like I was witness to the power of love made visible.

During one visit B. asked about my son. By name, no less. I was astonished at her clarity of thought, intermittent as it was. There was nothing creepy about these visits. As a hospice volunteer I am not responsible for personal care. My job is to be there, to sit by the client’s side, to talk when they want to talk, to validate their lives and even their suffering if that’s where our conversation takes us. Some family members are dismissive and that’s OK. They have more important things to acknowledge than my presence. I’m not there to be thanked. If anything the thanks are mine to give. A year after B.’s death I still say a silent thank you to the forces that brought me to her side. I was given the gift of being able to say thank you. I was able to give back to the very person who had given me the gift of being a hospice volunteer, who had set me on hospice’s path.

I’ve just met my next client, a fiercely intelligent psychotherapist. Mrs. W. is not accustomed to sitting in what she calls, “that other chair.” She is angry and scared at this reversal of roles. I am there to listen, certainly not in the capacity of a therapist but in the role of a compassionate friend. Mrs. W. wants to know when she will die. We aren’t cartons of yogurt, are we? I said. We’re not born stamped with an expiration date, are we? She laughed, understanding that I wasn’t making light but acknowledging the price of our humanity.

This week’s visit will be my fourth; already I have noticed changes in Mrs. W’s condition. Last week she raised her arms above her head, hands feeling for the white down covering her scalp. Her arms, so skeletal, reminded me of batwings. Her eyes are so bright and I realize that if her nose seems larger it could be because her face, so alive with her questions and her memories, grows thinner each week. Her family has just made arrangements for a full time companion during the day. I shall miss her intensity; I shall miss the mental sparring and our back and forth divinations for the meaning of life. Our afternoon conversations remind me of what the 18th century salons might have been like. I shall miss my new friend deeply.

I don’t know where our visits will take us nor how many we will have. I do know I am enjoying Mrs. W’s company immensely. She has led a fascinating life. Sharing her stories is validation of her many and productive years. I don’t look at my hospice work as visiting the dying. I visit with the living. My clients grace me with their stories; I am witness to profound love and deep anguish. And when the time comes, we both have our transitions; they to the next world, me back into mine.

© Debra Darvick 2008. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered on or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642. To read personal reflections, musing on the writing life, excerpts from her novel and book reviews, check out Debra’s new blog at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.