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Making Peace With Good-Bye This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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Death is taboo. It's an heavy topic that people don't want to hear about, talk about, or deal with, especially in regards to themselves.

This is how I used to think, too, before I discovered one of my passions – volunteering at a hospice facility, which provides services to terminally ill patients and their families. I began two years ago. At the time, I was beyond afraid, but I took the plunge anyway and joined a cheer team – a group of teens who visit hospice patients. Our job is to chat with the patients, play games, or even just serve as a TV-watching companion. For many patients we have also become manicurists and librarians.

On my first visit, I was extremely nervous, sweating and obsessing over what to do and say. I worried that the patients would be depressed because of their situation or that they wouldn't want to talk to us because we didn't have anything in common. Those worries, I soon learned, were irrational. As the weeks passed, I became more comfortable, realizing that these people were very much like me. They had once been where I am now, and I would later be where they are.

“I'm getting married Wednesday,” Don said from his recliner, his large, black-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose.

“You are?” we asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be a lovely reception.”

Just then, a cheer erupted from the basketball game he was watching on TV as a player netted a three-point shot. Don loved sports.

“Say,” he continued. “It's Friday. Isn't there a dance tonight?”

“Our school prom is tonight,” one of the girls said.

“Boy, I used to love those dances,” he said, then told us about all of the exciting things that happened at the dance he went to “last week.” The conversation continued like this for 45 minutes, the topic changing from dances to “the produce store down the road” to his “newborn daughter.”

Don is one of the patients in the memory care unit; he has dementia. I knew a little about the disease from a medical perspective, but I mistakenly believed that people with dementia can't remember anything, that it is impossible to communicate with them, that they are “crazy.”

Don definitely wasn't. He was always jovial and laughing, his distinct smile stretched across his face. Although his stories appeared to be fantastical, they were actually true. The stories Don told were from his life, just not in chronological order. Don talked about events that were important to him, reliving each of his treasured moments over and over.

In addition to debunking misconceptions about dementia, being a hospice volunteer has also taught me a lot about death – and life.

“Every day I pray that God takes me in my sleep,” said Joan, as I applied a clear topcoat over the red polish I'd just put on her nails. Our nail care service has become so widely known at the hospice that we are dubbed “the nail girls.” Joan was one of our first clients, and after this morbid comment we exchanged unsure glances. Noting our body language, Joan said “What?” indignantly.

“Well, it's just … why?” asked one of my friends.

Joan proceeded to tell us that everyone fears death, but they shouldn't. “I've had my time. I'm ready to go,” she said.

I'd never viewed death this way before. It was so permanent, so final, that I didn't understand how anyone could ever welcome it. When Joan died a few weeks later, I didn't cry. Yes, it was sad, but I knew she was finally at peace. Joan wouldn't feel the pain of her chronic edema anymore. She wouldn't be troubled by her stagnant life at the hospice facility. She'd had a good life and was ready to go.

Other patrons of our Friday afternoon manicures gave us advice too. Many offered this message: Live life while you can and be thankful for what you have now. Before I became a volunteer, I thought I'd have forever to do all the things I wanted to. My motto was always, “Work now, play later.” The purpose of life, I thought, was just to work. I also took my good health for granted. One woman named Gladys once told me, “Enjoy your mobility,” after she struggled to walk a few steps to her wheelchair. I've never looked at my legs in the same way. Many women told us that if there is something you want to do, do it now before it's too late. I will never forget the wise words of one patient who rode across the country on a motorcycle, which was very rebellious in her day. “Never doing something you'll regret is second to regretting doing nothing,” she insisted.

Someone once asked me if volunteering at hospice was fun. While it isn't always “fun,” it is something I'm passionate about, and it is undoubtedly rewarding. Patients always tell me how much they appreciate my visits and nail care services, but they have done so much more for me than I could ever dream of doing for them.

Being a hospice volunteer has taught me that death doesn't have to be an unspeakably sad occurrence, as long as we live life to the fullest while we can.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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