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Why Do I Volunteer for Hospice and What Do I Get Out of It?

The thought-provoking book and TED Talk Start with Why states that any person or organization can explain what they do; some can explain how they are different or better, but not that many can clearly articulate why, and why is the thing that inspires us.

I’m sure that everyone who volunteers for hospice has deep-seated reasons as to why they do it. And while there are surely many reasons common to all of us, some are quite personal.

My answer to the question is multi-faceted, with separate and independent reasons that fit together to form a whole:

1. To Provide Counterbalance

50 years ago, my sister, raised in the Episcopal Church, married a Catholic. I was taken by the nuns who lived in the convent attached to his church. I asked my brother-in-law what the nuns did; what was their purpose? He responded that their “work” was to provide a counterbalance to the evil in the world. Where there was hatred and fear, they provided love and respect. Where there was anger and violence, they provided peace. Where there was negativity, they provided hope.

Whether it was true or not, that philosophy stuck with me, and as I’ve aged and witnessed the incredible amount of negative energy that surrounds us every day in the news, I’ve chosen to adopt it as a key element of my own purpose in life.

As I sit with patients and their families who are experiencing the stages of grief, I have a singular, simple purpose: to provide positive balance: show up on time, ask, listen, respond, encourage and affirm.

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2. To Deepen My Practice

Practice can be defined as “the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.” To be the best person I can be, I need to constantly practice skills that are basic to hospice: active listening, empathy, patience, acceptance of things as they are, not as I’d like them to be, and detachment from outcomes. I mustn’t project my beliefs onto others or take things personally.

As a hospice volunteer, I’ve been belittled, disregarded, and distrusted. I’ve also been thanked, invited to intimate family gatherings, and become a trusted confidante. I take none of these feelings personally, but I accept them for what they are: expressions of what’s going on deep inside the people I care for and about.

The silver lining of focusing on core values has been that I believe I am becoming an ever-better friend, husband, brother, father and member of the family of man.

3. To Provide Perspective

I often feel angry, helpless and frustrated that I am unable to make big changes in the world order. I feel very strongly about politics and policy, but extremely limited in what I can do. So, if I can’t make big changes, I can do (relatively speaking) “small things” e.g. volunteering for hospice.

I know in my heart of hearts that my work makes a difference in the lives of those I serve, and I likely will never know how the ripples of my work impact the families and communities I touch. I’m ok with that. There’s a nice mystery about it. Who knows, perhaps a single act of kindness will ripple out, and like the butterfly wings changing the weather a continent away, I will have an impact far beyond my awareness.

4. To Remind Me to Seize Each Day

My wife and I are in good health physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. We know these gifts are fragile and can change on a dime, as they have for so many families hospice serves. So we do not let a day go by without expressing our gratitude for all we have and for each other.

We eat by candlelight every night we’re home. We share the “high-low” of our respective days. We tell each other one thing we admire about the other.

We’ve surrounded ourselves with friends and families who feed our souls, and have made new friends who are authentic, joyful, and positive.

We’ve traded business obligations for meaningful volunteer opportunities.

We’ve learned from patients how we wanted to structure our own end-of-life plans, and crafted our Five Wishes and legal documents in ways that should minimize suffering and maximize and celebrate lives fully led.

In short, we know how fortunate we are at this moment in time, and we try not to let a day go by without making it count.

When my volunteer work for hospice comes up in conversation, I consistently hear “Oh, I could never do that.” Hospice work is indeed not for everyone, but for those of us who find it an appropriate fit, it is “work” where one can receive much more than they give.

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