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No one dies alone


Hospice of Michigan volunteers sit vigil during patient’s final moments

After caring for her sick mother for months, doctors tell Stacey that her mother’s death is approaching.  Stacey’s focus has shifted from finding a cure for her mother to making sure she’s comfortable and that she doesn’t die alone. Stacey finds herself overwhelmed. Her grieving process has already begun and while she spends countless hours at her mother’s bedside, she fears she might not be there during the final moments.

“When it’s apparent that a patient has reached the end of life, it becomes very important to family and friends that the patient has support through the dying process,” says Kathy Julien, volunteer services manager at Hospice of Michigan. “It is our goal that a patient never dies alone. To achieve this, we have an incredibly compassionate and dedicated team of volunteers who go anywhere a patient is and ‘sit vigil’ during the final days and hours.”

HOM typically sends vigil volunteers for a two- to four-hour time frame. Volunteers play music, read inspirational readings or scripture, light candles, hold the patient’s hand, pray with the patient or just talk about the day. Julien says that in addition to sitting vigil with the dying when their family can’t be there, volunteers often sit alongside loved ones to offer comfort, reassurance and a shoulder to cry on.

“This isn’t a new concept,” Julien explains. “People have been sitting vigil with the dying for centuries. Traditionally, family, friends and clergymen would gather around the dying person to offer comfort and support to the patient and to each other.”

Julien explains that when people begin actively dying, their sense of sound is the last sense to go. While they may be unresponsive or appear unconscious, it’s very possible the patient can still hear what’s happening around them. In addition to creating a peaceful and comforting surrounding, sitting vigil is also the time to reassure patients that they are not alone, it’s okay to go and that their family will learn to cope with their passing.

“Hospice of Michigan vigil volunteers are very special and important people,” Julien says. “Most volunteers feel it’s a privilege to be with someone during the final moments in life. There is a love they have for their patients and this shows in the way they care for them and interact with their families.”

All prospective HOM volunteers go through a 12-hour training course where they learn more about HOM, the principles of hospice, the grieving process and how to help patients, families and staff. There’s an optional three-hour grief support session that, while not required, is recommended.  Julien explains that vigil volunteers also receive direction on:

Recognizing the signs that a patient is actively dying

Talking with the patient to provide comfort

When and when not to comfort patients through the physical touch of hand holding, rubbing their arms, etc.

Comforting family and friends and sharing details and stories from time spent with the patient

“When someone accepts that their loved one will die, their fear of the loved one dying is often replaced by a fear that they will die alone,” adds Julien. “It’s our job to help ease these fears and provide comfort, support and reassurance to patients and their families.”

If you would like to learn more about volunteer opportunities for Hospice of Michigan or sign up as a volunteer, contact Kathy Julien at 888.247.5701 or kjulien@hom.org.  For those who have experienced a loss, HOM encourages a waiting period of one year before becoming a volunteer in order to allow for processing grief.


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