JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl Cherian (Aloha, OR ’17-18) shares her experience interviewing hospice patients to capture the memories and lessons of their lives through her capacity building project called On Living. Read more about Sheryl’s experience below.
Six months ago, I moved from my hometown of Chicago, IL to the Pacific Northwest to begin a year of service through the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, my first full-time position after graduating from the University of Notre Dame last May. With the help of gut instincts and a strong support system, I committed to spending one year serving as the Immigrant Community Outreach Coordinator/Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners Hospice & Palliative Care, a community-based nonprofit located in Hillsboro, Oregon. I was to reside with four other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs), learning together how to live out the program’s core values: community, social & ecological justice, spirituality/reflection and simple living. I will admit that although I had recited my post-graduate plans dozens of times since committing, I had little conception of what my new, long-winded title really meant—nor any idea just how much this year of hospice service would bring me life.
As a Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners, I have the gift of spending many of my days learning from the special wisdom of those close to death. When I am not engaged in immigrant community outreach, I spend my weeks driving around the Portland area providing companionship and respite care for my caseload of 5-6 patients, as well as their caregivers and families. During these visits, my patients often smile through my mediocre ukulele playing, and we often simply sit and enjoy each other’s company while their caregivers take a much needed break. I have sat with people four times my age who radiate more life than anyone I know, who contain multitudes of stories and deep complexity, and who so clearly still have the need to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In watching and working with families, I have noticed that while nothing can prevent grief, there is healing in the acceptance that your loved one lived until the very end. There is comfort in realizing that if she or he met the process with acceptance, maybe you could, too.
Inspiration from these hospice volunteering experiences and the National Public Radio StoryCorps podcast led to the idea for my first capacity building project, a story-collection initiative called “On Living.” Essentially, I facilitate audio interviews between any of our patients and their loved ones who are interested, including those to whom I am assigned as a Hospice Volunteer. The process involves family members/friends gathering in a circle with the patient, speaking into a high-quality podcasting microphone, and having a conversation based on their questions and curiosities about the patient’s life, memories, lessons and any other topic they have chosen together. The product is a beautiful conversation, and I edit the recordings for fluidity and transfer them onto a CD. The recordings allow families to preserve the stories, in their loved one’s own voice, for generations. If the participants choose, their “On Living” story can also be published anonymously on the Care Partners website and social media pages.
Since the project’s inception, I have worked with families to adapt the general framework to their needs. For instance, one family desired weekly recording sessions. In another example, the eleven-year-old daughter of a very young patient who died on our service wanted to record her own memories of her dad. I have also translated the information sheet for our families who prefer to speak Spanish. In these ways, “On Living” has become a broad launching point for intimate conversations about love and loss, and because every patient is different, every story looks different, too. Also, because Care Partners is a community-based non-profit hospice, our goal is to capture the abundance and diversity of these stories, and to be able to provide something meaningful for families and friends to hold even after the loss of their loved one. I have been humbled by the healing powers of voice, of story-telling, and of gathering in what is assuredly one of the most difficult times for these families. “On Living” is just one way we can help create the space for this kind of sharing, which happens anyway, as my hospice volunteering experience has made clear.
In the second half of the year, I am focusing on the sustainability of the project after my service year concludes. I will be implementing training guides for the next JV AmeriCorps member and Care Partners’ large cohort of hospice volunteers, for whom I am organizing a half-day training in the spring. Recently, a generous donation from one participant family has also helped support the expansion of the project.
Overall, my observations thus far have taught me that death is as sacred as birth; that end-of-life work involves the family as well as the patient; that hospice is about living well in the days remaining more than dying itself; and that in this healthcare field, compassion and socio-emotional support blend with medical, nursing, and social work practice in profound ways, including ways which help the patient feel like a person again. Most of all, my time in hospice has reminded me that we are all human beings—we exist with limits, but we can live with abundance, no matter our circumstances and the time we have left. In some ways, awareness of the proximity of death seems to invite more meaning-making in life. I hope that “On Living” can be a part of this natural process for many more patients and community members to come.
I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with such meaningful work at my young age, and I recognize that the lessons I am learning here in hospice will only be reiterated as I myself grow, age and, eventually, die, hopefully with abundance of love and support I have now witnessed surrounding many of my patients.