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Ways of Seeing by Laurie Borden: Hospice work offers hope, wisdom

As we begin 2017, there are so many unknowns. Similar to the process of death, we can’t predict anything — mystery abounds. It doesn’t matter where we stand in our political tendencies, religious practices and cultural traditions or where we fall on the economic, social, sexual and wellness spectrums. Regardless of who we are or where we are — we will face change, we will face life and we will face death.
I work with Hospice Volunteer Services (HVS). Our office is in the MarbleWorks in Middlebury. On the wall there is a picture of two Peanuts characters sitting on a dock: Charlie Brown says, “Someday we will all die, Snoopy.” And the dog replies, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.” It is those “other days” that hospice is concerned about — the living our days in spite of death. How do we want our family, friends, neighbors to spend those “other days”? What is important to each of us as we live?
I’d like to dispel two myths about hospice.
Myth 1: Hospice is when we give up hope because there is nothing more that can be done. Instead, hospice is about the hope that there are always things that can be done — the expression of stories, of wisdom, of forgiveness, of gratitude, of love.
Myth 2: Hospice confines someone to a six-month death sentence. Instead, hospice creates a sacred space and time for very important life work to be completed with a compassionate support system for the patient and family. In paying attention to the fact that we die, there is an authenticity and vividness to life that is both poignant and astounding.
Hospice volunteers are trained in various practices that I believe could be very useful in the days and months to come.
Find Common Ground – At HVS we interview every patient. We also get to know our volunteers over the course of a 30-hour training program. This helps us to match a patient with a volunteer. Are there similar backgrounds, travels, careers, hobbies, passions? In finding connections we create a foundation for a rich relationship.
Meet People Where They Are – This is a place where all judgments and assumptions are left behind. As Rumi says, “Out beyond any ideas of wrong doing or right doing there is a field. I will meet you there.” We are being invited into this vulnerable time of a patient dying, we want our intentions to be the highest good for each patient we serve. We honor the individual essence of each person.
Use Vertical Listening – I picture a well, going down, down into the earth for that pure water at the bottom. In the same way, hospice listening goes below the surface, to a conversation beyond the weather report. This deep listening goes to a place in the soul where healing is found. The hardest part about being a hospice volunteer is just “being with” someone. We use the phrase, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” to remind ourselves to pause and listen.
Stay Open to the Mystery – There are so many diverse stories in hospice, so many ways to die. Often there are experiences with no explanation. How faith, religion, spirituality, belief or non-belief play a role is ever unfolding. We open ourselves to each death as new, with the potential for anything to happen. All these passages, with their individual messages, deserve our attention.
So as we enter 2017, whether you are terrified or comforted, depressed or exhilarated, this coming year can be seen as time of great possibility. We can look for common ground between one another, but also practice respect for those who are different. We can reach out our hand in acceptance, but also have courage to reach out our hearts to those with whom we disagree. We can pause to hear intentionally, but also use our voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. And finally, we can be open for meaning in that which we don’t understand, but also find peace in those questions unanswered.
My new year practice is “one by one”: I will not regret back, I will not worry forward, I will be in this one moment. One step, one encounter, one taste, one challenge, one smile, one person, one song, one hug, one setback, one breath at a time.
May 2017 bring us to attention, intention, possibility and hope — one moment at a time.
Laurie Borden is the program assistant at Hospice Volunteer Services in Middlebury. She also serves as the ARCH (Addison Respite Care Home) community coordinator, as well as on the ARCH board, exploring and creating end-of-life options in Addison County. She lives in Weybridge with her husband, mother and three Bernese mountain dogs.

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