As a hospice nurse, I have come to see that the majority of people approach the end of their life supported by the grace and love of people who care deeply for them and will mourn their passing. However, there are some people who will leave this world almost without a trace; no loving soul at their bedside; no one seeming to notice their departure, and it breaks your heart. No one should die alone.
He wasn’t very old. No visitors ever came to see him, and the few blood relatives he had in the world, including a teenage son, had written him off long ago. He had made bad choices in his life and had beaten the crap out of his body with drugs and hard living. Destitute, homeless, struggling with mental illness, and riddled with cancer and a failing liver, he was now alone and dying in a nursing home. His life story had been one of darkness and was deeply complicated.
As he approached his death, hospice volunteers who have been specially trained to sit and hold vigil at the bedsides of the dying, were summoned to be with him so he would not be alone. Vigil is derived from the Middle English, vigile, which means: “devotional watching.” In Latin it means: “awake.” One tradition of holding vigil is to accompany someone as they pass from this life – staying awake, being attentive and tenderly holding the space for them to let go. These are holy moments of deep offering, particularly when it is someone who may be a complete stranger to you.
They came and sat in shifts – not seeing a derelict that had lead a checkered and difficult life, but a human being who deserved to experience love, touch, kindness and dignity as he was transitioning from this world. They did not feel repulsed by him, nor were they hooked by the story line of his grizzly existence. They had no grudges to bear, no axes to grind. They did not sit in judgment, but with openhearted love and equanimity as he took his last breath.
Another patient who passed away recently lived in a small and barren apartment. He was a sweet and gentle soul, and had also lived a short life, riddled with the consequences of unwise decisions. In his last days, a friend of his showed up and moved in with him so he would not be alone. “We’ve lived hard and fast in our life, and many of our friends have died. I know how to do this,” he said, as he stared stoically over my shoulder, his lower lip quivering. I was deeply touched as I watched him wipe the vomit off his friend’s face, help him to the toilet and then tuck a tattered quilt around his frail shoulders. They sat close together in silence on an old couch, holding hands tightly, a basketball game blaring from the television set.
As I stepped outside, his neighbor tentatively approached me. He scratched his large belly and stammered, “I didn’t realize he was so bad off. I got a damn good piece of steak here. I can just soak it in mushroom soup for a few hours and then cook the shit out of it; it’ll be soft as butter. Fix him right up.” I smiled and shook his hand, thanking him. “You’re a good man.” I paused before continuing, surprised at the tears welling up in my eyes. I swallowed. “Maybe let’s wait and see how he’s feeling tomorrow.” “Sure thing,” he said. “Tomorrow could be a better day. I’ll be right here if he needs me. You betcha.”
I am reminded everyday by the people I meet in my work, that it is in our basic nature to step up and extend a helping hand to others. It’s who we genuinely are or can be, given the chance. I walked away and took a deep breath, my heart open, inspired to pass it forward…