Hospice volunteers practice 'vigil care'

Posted: Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Most of us are familiar with the term "birth coaching" or "doula" when applied to bringing new life into this world. It seems natural that a new mother and her partner decide they would benefit from someone to stay with them, providing encouragement and support during this special and important time in their lives. But how many of us have thought about how we might also appreciate this kind of caring at the end of life - whether it's our own or a loved ones? So often, families believe they are going to be "just fine" when their loved one passes, but as the time nears, they find they are more nervous and uneasy then anticipated. They might then realize that it will help to have a supportive third party present who will care for them as well as the patient.

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"Vigil care" and "support" are the terms hospices generally use to describe this type of care. I have had the honor of offering vigil care to many patients over the years, and, for each patient, what I offer is always a little different, as every patient's needs and desires are different. My primary focus is always the patient. I commit to being fully present for them. I listen. They may like me to read something special, play some special music, or simply sit quietly with them. Sometimes, they just need help getting comfortable. Perhaps they wish me to call someone for them - I am there to support in any way that I can.

When their time for journeying over is close, I share with them how they might be able to follow their "light" when the time seems right for them to pass. I am trained in "Healing Touch," - an energy-based technique where the hands are placed in a light touch on different points on the body or just above the body, to balance the energy field surrounding the patient. It can be used to reduce stress, pain and anxiety, and is relaxing for the patient. One particularly special time, I did Healing Touch while a Tlingit family member played the drum and sang. It was truly like a dance. It is a special memory that I will always carry with me, as my patient just relaxed, and I knew she was where she was supposed to be. It was beautiful.

Sometimes, part of vigil care is as simple as putting hot water on for tea for the family who is tired and needs comfort. Often, I listen to the family tell stories about the patient, as it is healing for them to share, and the patient enjoys listening as they share as well. Vigil care is a gift of love. It does not matter to me whether I know the patient beforehand or have just met them in their last hours. What I wish to do is to help them follow their light and journey to the other side peacefully. Sometimes this takes a few minutes and sometimes this takes several days, but time does not matter.

After I have had the privilege and honor of being with someone as they cross over, I feel the same as I do when I have been privileged to be a birth coach. I might feel tired, but there is an energy as well; an exhilaration of having been on a special journey together. I have helped someone pass to where they were called to go. I am, however, sad for the loss experienced by their family and friends, and for myself because even in those last hours, I have bonded with that patient. I feel sad that I was not able to know them better or for longer.

With each patient I serve, I receive a gift that enriches me and helps me to be able to then give to the next patient. I hope that someday vigil caregiving at the end of life will be as natural as having a birth coach. Vigil care, to me, symbolizes the "Circle of Life." My hope is that more families will know that vigil care is available and also that more people will feel called upon to want to serve in this very special way.

• Debbie Sis is a Hospice and Home Care volunteer and Juneau resident.

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