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What I Learned as a New Hospice Volunteer

February 14, 2024

By CONNIE GIBBS


hospice volunteer

In July 2022, I read in the Driftwood that the Salt Spring Hospice Society was recruiting new volunteers. I knew nothing about the hospice society. And the little I thought I knew turned out to be wrong.

Running errands in Ganges, I would sometimes wonder where the hospice was. I imagined a homey place, tucked away on a quiet side street where people were cared for lovingly in their last days.

When I showed up for my interview at the cozy hospice office on Rainbow Road, two veteran volunteers soon set me straight. There is no physical hospice building, they explained. Hospice on Salt Spring operates as a set of services to provide compassionate support to the dying and bereaved. There is no charge for any of these services.

In the training sessions, I learned more about these services. They include a vigil hotline that connects volunteer vigil sitters with family members who need respite from long hours sitting by the bedside of a loved one in their final days.

Many people want to be confident that someone is keeping watch over their loved one, especially through the night. The dedicated vigil team meets that need.

Later I would be amazed by how quickly the Salt Spring Hospice vigil team is able to show up at Lady Minto or Greenwoods, ensuring that someone will always be at the bedside and allowing family members to leave for much-needed sleep.

Our group of trainees had a full learning curriculum, starting with grief companioning. One-to-one bereavement support is a key service offered by Salt Spring Hospice, and is available in person, in the hospice office, or by phone. We spent a lot of time learning about grief companioning, what it is and what it is not. At the heart of grief support, I learned, is compassionate and attentive listening. My job as a grief companion would be to pay attention, in a mindful and caring way to what the bereaved person is saying, or not saying if they are silent. Later when I put this into practice, I was surprised by the power of this kind of listening. It struck me as a form of mindful meditation, something I’ve tried and failed at many times as I have an annoyingly chatty mind. The training taught me to bring a steady focus to my listening that I had seldom experienced before. (My husband would agree I’m more of a talker than a good listener.) I had tried meditating by focusing on my breath or a candle, but this kind of attentive listening to another person was profoundly different from any of my previous meditation attempts. More importantly, the person I was listening to felt deeply heard. Together we created a safe and trustworthy space where grief could be expressed, validated and supported.

Beyond the overwhelming sense of loss that comes when a loved one dies, other unsettling emotions may arise during grieving and are unique to the bereaved person. I was taught that ALL emotions are acceptable to express, including uncomfortable ones like guilt, relief, shame, anger. Short of throwing furniture around, anything goes in a one-to-one grief support session. Grief support companions are NOT counsellors and are not trained to help with mental health concerns and complex personal issues. I appreciated that boundaries and self care were essential parts of the training curriculum for volunteers.

Facilitated grief groups are offered from time to time, usually with no more than nine participants.

Finally, hospice volunteers visit residents and patients in Greenwoods and Lady Minto who indicate they would like a friendly visit.

Hospice on Salt Spring may not have a building, but it has compassionate, dedicated volunteers providing needed services to people at their most vulnerable time of life.

I take comfort knowing that, when my time on Earth is up, there are caring, skilled and trustworthy people who will be there for my family if they need support.


Originally published in Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper

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