As a Hospice Volunteer, I Did Nothing

I did nothing.

Well, that’s not correct since I finished several chapters in the book I was reading.

I did nothing.

That’s not correct either, since I quietly eased down the hallway on several occasions to listen to the patient’s breathing. I was cautioned that he had a soft voice and would always say he was fine or didn’t need anything, even if he wasn’t fine and had needs. Best to listen carefully!

I did nothing . . . unless being ready to answer the door before a visitor pressed the doorbell or prepared to answer the phone before it rang for too long count as something.

As a hospice volunteer on one of my first assignments, I mostly did that “nothing.” After my training (I’ll mention more about that in a bit), I was ready to help! The Volunteer Coordinator had called, asked if I could go over to a family and patient’s home for an hour or two later in the week. I said sure. My task? Make sure the patient wasn’t alone. While I sat in the living room, present and available if “anything” happened, the patient’s weary wife did her grocery shopping.

I read a book. I stood in the hallway and listened. And then I welcomed a patient’s wife home, helped bring the groceries in, and was gone. Before leaving, the wife profusely thanked me . . . for nothing.

The patient died a few weeks later. It was my only visit.

Maybe a month later, I received a request from the hospice’s Volunteer Coordinator: one of the other volunteers couldn’t do their regular weekly visit with a patient. This fella was by himself for a predictable time during the week and everyone—the family and hospice medical staff—didn’t want him to be alone. Get a volunteer!

I filled in.

We had a fun afternoon. He said I could visit him anytime. This particular patient loved to talk, especially about his time during World War II in the Army Air Corps as a pilot. Bad news: he was hard of hearing. Disappointing news: several of his previous volunteers were always keen to talk but 1) he sometimes couldn’t hear them and 2) they didn’t know much about World War II.

Good news! I’m loud! Better news: my father served in the Army Air Corps, I’m a low-key history buff, and a member in a prior church I’d served had flown the exact same plane, a B-24 bomber. I knew stuff! The patient told story after story. What a guy . . .

The patient died a few weeks later. It was my only visit.

My volunteering at this hospice eventually led to a job offer. I’m now a paid Bereavement Support Specialist. As a United Methodist clergy, I’m officially “assigned” to do this ministry.

But I always remember how important volunteers are. They are a key part of hospice’s work with individuals and families.

At this hospice (I can’t speak for others), the effort* to become a volunteer is rigorous! I attended multiple training sessions with other potential volunteers. I had to get letters of recommendation from friends and former colleagues. A criminal background check was done. (Yes, I passed.)

Why is the hospice so diligent with training?

Picture me back in that patient’s living room, reading a book and doing nothing. For over an hour, I had complete access to everything this family owned. A helpless patient slept in a back room. It doesn’t take much to imagine the worst things that could happen when you “invite” a stranger into your home . . . and then you leave. This family, overwhelmed by a loved one’s dying, trusts that hospice will send a trustworthy person.

Picture me back in that veteran’s home, where he’s telling me tales about one of the scariest times of his life. He’s scared now, too. Once, he “beat” death and came home from war. Now death is beating him, and he is at his most vulnerable.

I appreciated my training. Families welcomed me into their homes and trusted me. It was a privilege to be a hospice volunteer. Just like the professional hospice staff, volunteers enter into people’s lives during one of their most tender and traumatic times and try to serve them. We are not there to tell them what to do, or tell them what to believe, but to listen to their needs and attempt to give them as much control as possible as their lives careen out of control.

I waited in a home because a family needed groceries.

I chatted (loudly) with a guy who told great stories.

These two patients died soon after my visits. My training covered that too. And since I’m a pastor who’s been in emergency rooms and hospitals, I anticipated death would be part of my experiences. But no volunteer training truly prepares anyone for visiting a patient one week—maybe just sitting with them, maybe playing card games, maybe listening to family stories—and then getting a call from the Volunteer Coordinator saying there’s no need for the next visit. Even my background in ministry doesn’t stop the tears or sadness when a “relationship” is abruptly over.

Visiting the dying isn’t for everyone.

But volunteering in hospice covers a lot of territory. There are paperwork needs, answering phones, assisting at events, and a host of other options. Every aspect of volunteering matters and helps a hospice care for families and patients.

Sometimes, it will feel like nothing happens. But, at least for me, that really wasn’t true. While I’d mostly read my book, the patient’s wife accomplished a simple, normal, necessary chore.

Doing “nothing” can be a very precious gift.

*If you check out a local hospice to volunteer your time, and the training is “easy,” I’d be a tad leery about that agency. The training is rightly rigorous.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. When I started this just a year and change ago, I remember asking “what should I do?” Best answer I received and think about everyday doing it now: “to be a warm body.” Thanks for this post!

  2. I volunteer at a hospice house. I find the experience to be extremely rewarding. I may give help to those in need of comfort, but they give me a feeling of fulfillment. To those who think it must be horrible to work with the dying and their families, you are so wrong. To bring solace and peace is a reward unto itself.
    Try it…
    A grateful volunteer in East Northport, NY.

    • Thanks, Ronnie. Yup, it’s a kinda “cliche,” but the volunteer work done FOR hospice patients almost always is a gift back TO the volunteer. Thanks for your work!!

  3. In my 8 years volunteering at hospice I have found that I do a lot of little “nothings” and I think “nothing” of it.

    Every once in a while a patient or family member will reconnect with me and say, “You have no idea how much comfort you brought me when we sat together that time.” I smile, nod my head and fail to remember the details of the conversation.

    In the last 8 years I have spoken to hundreds of people. And the details blur. All I remember is having an open heart.

    But to that person, they well remember the details and to them, it was very meaningful time that we spent together.

    • Michael (or, based on your email, ekim!):

      Thanks for reading and responding. Even more, thanks for your time with and compassion for hospice patients and their families.

      I agree. The details can blur, but focusing on spending meaningful moments with each person is a gift.

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