Hospice social workers help people and they know it. This isn’t the case with all professions. Even members of the classic “people-helping professions” often have their doubts.
I was recently reminded of this at one of my wife’s friend’s son’s birthday parties. The house was big and elegant, and high on a shelf in the living room was a thick book about critical care medicine. The boy’s father was tall, thin, clean-shaven, with a haircut that was only slightly too relaxed to be military. I asked him he were an Air Force doctor and he said he used to be a flight surgeon. He acted impressed and asked how I knew.
This critical care doctor and I got into a conversation. He told me that he often feels like he’s not really helping his patients.
In the car a while later, I told my wife that I wouldn’t trade places with our rich new friend. At the end of every day, no matter how tired my head or tight our budget, I know for a fact that I made a positive difference for someone, and most days for several people. Whether it’s helping a family to reunite or supporting an individual in having her end-of-life wishes respected, I know I’m helping. Even when all I’m doing is paying deliberate and loving attention to people who are sad, lonely and/or confused, I know that my job is helpful.
Why I do Hospice Social Work
I first became interested in hospice because I believed there was wisdom to gain by interacting with those who are dying. During the very difficult year I spent after college, I volunteered with a hospice. I couldn’t stand it, but I continued with it for a while because I believed it was a good thing to do. I believed that I was learning something good by sitting with, reading to, and making sandwiches for terminally ill people. My emotional discomfort in this situation was severe, and after that year ended and I started a new career in Japan, I forgot all about hospice.
The promise of hospice social work as a satisfying role
I started thinking again about hospice 10 years later when I was on my way to become a social worker. I was in graduate school at the time, with the goal of serving veterans. But I wasn’t enjoying it. My veteran-service internships were not feeling as if they would lead to a satisfying career.
One of my mentors came into one of my classes and guest lectured about serving the elderly. He said that serving the elderly is important, because there are a lot of them. And there are going to be more. And that a study shows that hospice is a satisfying field.
That was all I needed–that beckoning suggestion of satisfaction. I started volunteering with a nearby hospice. Again I discovered inner emotional resistance, but this time I decided to overcome it. One visit at a time I felt my fear and awkwardness and breathed through them. On my drives home I would pray for their release. A little while later, I graduated, got licensed and started working in hospice. Now I tend to feel quite comfortable speaking with terminally ill people and their family members. Sometimes even more so than with most other people.
When people think they’re going to live forever, they get boring in comparison to people who know with certainty that their time to express themselves authentically is limited.
I get to be hand-holder AND a hero!
I do hospice social work because I get to see people at their best as often as I see them at their worst. And because some days I get to be a lovey-dovey hand holder, and other days I get to be flex Jack Reacher-style resourcefulness and save the day. I get to use my personal power for good. And support a close-knit team. It’s a chance to develop as a leader, a networker and as a psychotherapist. I get to be serious and I get to be a goofball. I laugh, cry, and puff up my chest for what’s right on behalf of the dying.
You picking up what I’m laying down?
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