Keith Humphreys: A Hospice Volunteer

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As a hospice volunteer Keith Humphreys has experienced the depth of the bonds that friendship in the face of death can forge.

Over my years of volunteering in a hospice program, I learned that outsiders often see it as a noble sacrifice. But never has volunteer work come with such rich compensations.

It is not just helping someone prepare for death that makes hospice care an intimate experience. You see people in their home rather than in an antiseptic hospital. They might point out photos of relatives and tell you favorite stories about them, note a plaque or medal from a past glory, or bemoan the ugly wallpaper they always meant to replace but never did. Patients are often delightfully candid and uncensored. They don’t care what you will think of them next year; why should they?

When you knock on a new patient’s door, you sometimes find that the patient or the family is unsure what they need from you or has even forgotten you were coming at all. Sometimes I was scheduled to spend an afternoon talking with the patient but ended up listening to a stressed caregiver vent. Sometimes I brought a patient’s favorite book to read but we ended up singing together instead. Modelling willingness to accept whatever life gives you is essential for hospice volunteers, because it’s what the patient and the family are struggling to do themselves.

One of the patients I remember most vividly was a man I will call Andy. His devoted parents had taken him into their house, showering him with love while dealing with life’s ultimate grief: having a child precede you in death. Over months of visiting him, I came to treasure his gallows humor, his equanimity, and his love for his parents and his own children.

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The last time I saw him, we both knew his time was close. As we held hands, Andy said, “I’m glad you kept coming to see me, because I don’t have anything to offer you”. And in that one thing, Andy was wrong, because there’s no greater honor than being the last friend someone’s ever going to make.

With a Perspective, I’m Keith Humphreys.

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.