Breathing in Stillness and Honoring Life
Hospice volunteering is a natural extension to the work Julie Engstrom has dedicated herself to most of her life, advocating for patients and facilitating communication between caregivers in a hospital setting. She described facilitating “moments of normalcy” for patients in the hospital and now she applies that same skill to patients in the care of hospice, sharing a unique perspective on what she receives from the experience.
One of those perspectives is the importance of honoring the patient by taking a moment to notice and receive the space they occupy
“I feel I need to open my heart when I enter a patient’s room/house, whether it be a bedroom or a living room, I take time to breathe in the photos, medicine bottles, pads, diapers or machines—all are part of their sacred space.” Julie said.
Knowing that a patient has invited Julie, as a volunteer, to share the last phase of their existence humbles her immensely. A tremendous feeling of gratitude fills her heart when she visits a patient, knowing they are giving her a precious gift of vulnerability and love, an act of kindness that permeates into her own relationships with friends and family.
The other gift Julie receives, through observation, is the knowledge that each person dies the way they lived. She describes the process of what is the end of life for her mother-in-law, one of peace, quiet visits with immediate family, and limited material distractions. Simplicity and depth is what she treasured about life, and it is what she wants in the end as well. In contrast, Julie, a gregarious and fun-loving person at heart, wishes for celebration, hugs, upbeat music—a very different experience than the one preferred by her mother-in-law. As individual as these end of life choices are, Julie has learned to honor them all.
What is universal in Julie’s experience however, is a sense of quiet that is inherent in hospice work. The accelerating pace of life and wish to fill every waking moment slows down when Julie visits a patient. This ability to invite stillness in, through silence, smell and even observation is a special gift of simply being present and Julie treasures this aspect of her work.
Julie said, “I believe I’m there to help the families breathe.”
Sometimes these times of breathing allow space for reflection and discovery for patients. Julie described a woman who was struggling with the guilt of burdening her caretaker husband. By providing a space for her to talk, the woman realized allowing her husband to care for her was providing him with the gift of purpose, meaning and an avenue for displaying his deep love and affection. These epiphanies can often emerge from quiet moments of stillness.
Julie said, “The joy in hospice volunteering comes from opening my heart to vulnerability and absorbing the burden of worry, sorrow or pain of the moment and transforming that energy back into a nurturing, quiet and gentle presence.”
This ability to open her heart and share her nurturing spirit with others is something Julie treasures in her own life. She described the simple act of sitting with her husband and son, saying nothing at all, all the while savoring that time together.
I savored my discussion with Julie as well. Her ability to open her heart and stay wholly present is the special gift she shares with others, especially her hospice patients, taking time to truly honor them in the last phase of their lives.
- Notice and honor the space people occupy
- Breathe and invite in quiet moments of stillness