Song for the Dying

It’s not as sad as you think. When I tell people that I spend my free time sitting with those who are dying, they are often convinced that it must be a tragic, grief riddled event. It’s not. But they don’t want to hear about it.

It must be our culture. We choose to ignore death as much as possible and, if we deal with it at all, it’s in a reverent or sad manner. We fear death like nothing else. But here’s a scoop: Nobody gets out alive. As Springsteen sings : “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact“. Death is just another element of life.

Often the person who has truly faced their own mortality finds a heady new sense of freedom. All the little things, annoyances, resentments, all seem to fade away. They want to spend their last remaining time on earth unencumbered by negativity and petty concerns. Things that once seemed so important are now completely insignificant. There is letting go in their acceptance.

Of course, not everyone gets this far on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Some get stuck in anger, some in bargaining. “Why me?” they ask. “Why not you?” the world answers.

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The time spent in the company of the actively dying is intense and extremely rewarding. Remember – as a visiting volunteer for a Hospice these are not my people. Not my loved ones. I am there only as a tool to assist the patient in any way that I can, or as a respite for their caregivers to let them have a few hours away from the constant stress of ongoing care.

For someone who is so often in charge, it is a very good exercise for me to place all my own beliefs, and concerns aside.  My opinion matters not at all.  I follow their lead entirely.

My role changes with every client. Some want only to talk about their illness; the diagnosis, the progression, the prognosis. New methods of treatment, operations with different outcomes, a thousand “what if”s fill their days.

And they know that they are dying. When you have a hospice volunteer show up, it’s pretty clear where we are heading. However I have had more than a few occasions when a family member has said “don’t let her know how bad she is – there is no point in upsetting her”. And then the patient will say “Don’t let them know this but I’m not going to make it.” The dying almost always know.

Some never even mention their impending demise. They want to talk of happier times from long ago – the birth of a child, often grown and far away. They share memories of the war, of falling in love. It’s a privilege to hear. And because I am not part of their family, they are free to say anything to me, with no fear of repercussions. I have been told amazing things that I can never share.

Some don’t want to talk at all – they just want to listen. They want me to read to them, from a favourite book, or the daily paper. They ask me to tell them stories to make them laugh – to forget, if even for a moment, how temporary it all is.

Sometime they ask me to sing. I close my eyes and sing.