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There are no final words, and that is fine: Five things I have learned about death and dying

Following a one year training programme as an “accompognateur des personnes en fin de vie” I have been volunteering in a hospice for a few years now. The other day I was talking with my fellow evening shift volunteers about what volunteering has taught us about death and dying. Here are a few thoughts that have stuck, and that you may not find in the soppier self-help books on this topic :

1. There are no final words, and that is fine.

In a hospice, even with scores of people passing every year, every person’s death remains special. It is carefully noted and staff and volunteers share stories of the past days and weeks. Still, I have not once heard anyone say: “his/her final words were….” Today’s palliative medicine allows the doctors and nurses to take much of the physical pain and fear out of the final days. Most residents drift away and express communication on their part in the final days is mostly about their comfort. We provide comfort through presence, care and touch.

2. Every person dies their own death

Your last days are typically an extension of those days and weeks before. The social people are surrounded by people, the solitary are more solitary. The gentle are gentle, the angry are angry. There are exceptions: the most hard-shelled people soften up as their ability to maintain their public façade weakens. Beautiful conversations take place as they come to understand that, in this context, nobody judges them.

3. You will probably die (almost) alone.

Most hospice residents die in the early hours. This is not in any way tragic, and in our hospice the amazing night-nurses will typically be there. But a final breath while surrounded by loved ones is rare: This could be because this is the time when the human will power is lowest. Some colleagues insist it may be the residents’ choice: Finally, with no business around them, they feel free to let go.

4. Knowing the end is approaching is a good thing

Even though it is somewhat selfish to leave it to shocked heirs to put things in order, we all wish for a sudden, unexpected death. But beyond organising life’s admin, having time to say goodbye is an enormous service to those left behind. Their grieving process is easier if they have discussed last wishes, funeral matters and been given clear instructions how the deceased would have wanted these things to be done. Perhaps there is even time to be able to lay some deep-rooted family conflicts to rest.

5. Nobody from the office will come and visit. There are exceptions. But this is definitely the rule.

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