Recently, I went through training to become a hospice volunteer. Eventually, when all of my forms/vaccinations/interviews/references are cleared, I’ll be assigned a patient and will be visiting once a week to provide a respite for caregivers so that they can have a break for a few hours and to give some companionship for the patients, whether it’s holding a hand, playing a bit of piano, reading to them, or just sitting quietly.
I expected the volunteer process to be a little less arduous than it was (eighteen hours of training over the course of three days, a flurry of forms, vaccinations), but I’m glad it was so thorough. It was very helpful, especially as my field ed church has lots of older people, including countless shut-ins that can’t make it to Sunday worship.
The most helpful elements of the training for me were the session on the stages of dying/dying process, led by a hospice nurse, and the session on grief and bereavement, led by one of the hospice chaplains. One of the most important tasks for the dying, according to the training, is telling the stories that matter to them. Asking for and giving forgiveness. Expressing love to family and friends.
Our packet included a quote from the novelist Isak Dinesen that I’ve thought about several times in the past few weeks. “All sorrows can be borne,” Dinesen writes, “if you put them into story.”
Being in a rural church that’s not very program-heavy, I do a lot of pastoral care visits. So far, I’ve gone along with my supervisor, as I meet people and get acquainted, but soon, I’ll be doing lots of visiting on my own. Many of the shut-ins are older ladies, in their seventies or eighties (one is 98!), and many are widowed for many years or just a few.
We make conversation, my supervisor, the parishioners, and I. About the flowers or potted tomato plants lining the walks that their children or grandchildren have planted. About the dog or cat that is doted on like a child. About the health problems and surgeries of others in the church. After a while, almost without fail, they will tell the stories of their lives as I sit and watch their beautiful, wrinkled faces. One talks about sewing clothes for her and her children from the brightly covered feed sacks. Another talks about her husband’s job with the fire department and how he loved his children. Another simply tells us how her husband of sixty-five years was a good man and confesses how she misses him every day. Another, much younger man we visit breaks down and cries at the mention of his parents, who have passed. They show us pictures, color or black and white.
They are strikingly honest, and I feel blessed, as if I have been trusted with these memories, to hold them and keep them safe.
One day, between visits, my supervisor and I made the fairly long drive from the hospital to the houses around the church. As we drove, I asked questions, trying to connect the dots of who is related to whom. “It took me a while to figure it all out,” my supervisor said. “But one of the most important things we do is just to learn the stories.”
As an English and writing major, stories feel familiar. I spent (and hope to still spend!) years trying to write stories that are beautiful and true, regardless of whether they are fact or fiction. But in some ways, it feels like I’ve still been learning stories here in divinity school. The narratives of our faith: from Eden to Sinai to Babylon to Galilee to Jerusalem one Sunday morning. And on and on from there. The narrative of the Church and the people who have formed and shaped it and carried it into the twenty-first century. A friend in a nearby town in Virginia has started a similar project: blogging through the year and telling the stories of the saints of the church, or as he calls them, “the stories that matter.”
These stories, the stories of the Christians who loved and worshiped and testified and passed on the faith, and the stories of the love between God and God’s people, these are stories to be passed on, shared, and told in different ways.
And other stories, the ones of the beautiful, wrinkled ladies, are just to learn and to treasure. They are precious all the more for that.