Healing grief through volunteer work

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

I was aware that Hospice and Home Care of Juneau offered bereavement support to those who are grieving, but that wasn't why I initiated contact. I came there in the spring of 2004 as a volunteer who wanted to "give back" because Mary Kay Vellucci, care coordinator with Southeast Senior Services, had done so much to help my mother. When I asked Vellucci how I could be of help, she referred me to Hospice and Home Care of Juneau (both are divisions of Catholic Community Service.)

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My first assignment was to clean and inventory the equipment loan closet and medical supplies room. Next I served as an office assistant. Then, as I became increasingly more involved, I completed Hospice and Home Care's 28 hours of training so that I could volunteer in patients' homes and provide support when they lost their loved ones.

I found a niche in the personal relationships I developed with clients and I continued to learn and grow under the mentorship of Jean Jasmine, Hospice and Home Care's coordinator of Bereavement and Volunteer Services. During that time, I learned a lot about the healthy ways we can recover from the crises and grief we all face in life. I also gained confidence in my abilities to coordinate work with other volunteers and provide support to people who had lost loved ones. In early 2006, I was hired as Jean's part-time assistant to help coordinate volunteer activities for Hospice and Home Care.

To have a job that you love - one that is fulfilling in so many ways - is a blessing that not everyone gets to experience. But more than that, I realized that I was healing from my own grief over the loss of a relationship that had been central in my life. I hadn't known that what I was experiencing was called "grief." After all, I hadn't lost anyone to death - it was the personal rejection that hurt so badly.

Today I know that grief comes with any loss, that there are countless types of losses and that we need to recognize and honor our grief in order to heal.

One of the greatest gifts I've been given through my work at HHCJ is the joy of knowing Nancy Andison who was one our home care clients. From our first meeting some time in late 2004, I was drawn to this courageous woman. She was the same age as me - 441 - and her advanced symptoms of multiple sclerosis had robbed her of her voice and rendered her quadriplegic. We communicate by lip-reading, or using an alphabet board: Andison uses her eyes to indicate which quadrant of the board has the letter she wants, and as I say the letters, she closes her eyes when I land on the one she wants. In this way, she spells words and communicates her thoughts and needs.

Andison and her family have always used humor to cope with her illness, as evidenced by her self-selected phone number, the last four digits of which spell GIMP. Her essay that aired on KTOO's "This I Believe" last year, in spite of the gravity of the topic - living with a serious disability - was full of humor.

During our introductory visit, because Andison wasn't able to tell me about herself verbally, I asked her first volunteer, Ellie Dunlap, to help me get to know her. As Andison punctuated our conversation with laughter, I listened to Ellie's stories about how Andison used to think it fun to have her wheelchair hooked to the bumper of a vehicle so that she could be pulled around. "Nancy has a bit of daredevil in her," Ellie said.

Because she now lives in a nursing care facility, Nancy is no longer one of our clients but we - "the N-Team" - remain her weekly visitors, bonded by our mutual love and admiration of Andison as well as a heart connection with each other.

Recently we had the thrill of seeing how technology can help ease some of the difficulties faced by people with physical limitations. A staff member in the facility where Andison lives referred her to Larry Sommers, who does business as "adaptive needs," to see if he could devise and develop equipment that would enable Andison to operate her computer and therefore, communicate better.

As Sommers says, "I don't work with people's disabilities - I work with their abilities." Sommers, in his evaluation of Andison's abilities, took note of her tenacity, intelligence and determination. Together, they determined that the best option for a data input device would be something that Andison could operate with jaw movements, using Morse code, while her computer translates it into text. He developed a communication station that includes a large flat-panel monitor mounted over Andison's head that enables her - for the first time in many years - to see for herself what is on the screen.

Recently, Andison was able to type her first e-mail: "Hello world. Andison." It was a monumental moment, and brought tears to the eyes of many of us when we opened our e-mail that day.

My experience with Andison is just one example of the immeasurable benefits of volunteering with Hospice and Home Care. Every day our volunteers help our organization and clients in innumerable ways. It can be as simple as doing occasional jobs such as mowing a lawn for a client or running errands, or staffing information tables at health fairs. It can involve helping with our office computers or working at our annual run/walk and other fundraising events. And, it can be as deeply meaningful as co facilitating bereavement groups, or companioning a home care or hospice patient. In-home volunteering can require a commitment of two hours a week for two years.

If you would like to join our cadre of volunteers, please contact me at debbie.mcbride@ccsjuneau.org or 523-6206, or Jean Jasmine at jean.jasmine@ccsjuneau.org or 463-6134. We have a place for you, and I can assure you it will be a life-giving experience.

• Debbie McBride is the assistant volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.

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