Two lessons learnt after three months of volunteering at three hospices…
Long time back, I had read a book “Top Five Regrets of a Dying Man” by an Australian hospice nurse – Bronnie Ware who had distilled her 51 years of being around people who were waiting to die in 5 simple truths on what we regret about when we look back at life. Sometime around then, working at a hospice became an entry in my my bucket list after reading that book.
First, I reasoned that it would help me set perspective for the years I have left. But more importantly, I thought there was a second part of that book Bronnie meant to write some day – what the postitive reflections are that people have once they realize that their days are numbered.
Getting the opportuinity to work at three hospices for the last three months (started with seven patients, lost four of them and added six more), I am starting to get some glimpse of those reflections. Specifically, I have come to two realizations…
Lesson 1: People take great pride in their children
Without exception, every patient – at least the ones that can hold a rational discussion – is very proud of their children. Even the most quiet ones can become animated if you just ask them “What do your kids do?”
You probably remember the gentleman who kept his daughter’s phone number in his hat. You may also remember the blind gentleman who was very proud of how much his kids do for him. I even have a patient who has a picture of herself with her three kids on her shelf – but I am not allowed to talk about the daughters (who as I understand are fighting unsuccessfully drug addiction and swindled their mom of a lot of money). Try talking to her about her son though and she will hold court for at least half an hour before she will come up for breath.
The general sense I get is that in your last days, you realize that your kids are one of the very few things that are absolutely your own creation. Nobody else could have create exactly they way they are. And in any which way you have influenced them – your effects in this world is going to outlive you by about 30 years or even more.
Lesson 2: Everybody has a story. And they want to tell it.
Once a patient starts opening up, almost always it is about their past life. It is like they just want somebody to listen to their reflections. Most are very proud of what their life has been.
The other day, as I was walking from the parking lot of one of the hospices to the building itself, I saw an old lady walking along with her walking stick enjoying the sun. No sooner than had I greeted her and asked her how she was doing (I did not know her at all), she stood there for thirty five minutes and gave me a synopsis of her life story. With a great sense of humor too!
One of those patients who is no more (in fact, he passed away when I had gone to India to tend to my dad), used to wait for me to come the next time to tell me one more of his chapter of life. Same with the blind gentleman.
Now, realize that some of those stories were not very consisten. For sure, they were biased. But the accuracy of the story is not my point.
My point is, I think before they die, they want their story to be heard. They want to leave their story behind. They are proud of the unique achievements they have had and most look back with some satisfaction. But there are no avenues for them to let the world know of their story. And perhaps, they realize that with them, their story will die too. Not too many of them are going to write down autobiographies.
Giving them an avenue to narrate their story the way they saw their life is an interesting “service” I have stumbled upon. One thing is for sure – each and every one of them has a story. And they are in a hurry to get it out… if you have the time to listen.
Those are the two lessons for now.
Would love to exchange notes with any of you who might have had similar or contrarian experiences.
I will certainly keep you posted as I learn more from my association with hospice patients.