A Sussex based blogger sharing a candid tale of 20-something humanness

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

9 things I've learnt from working at a hospice

The word 'morbid' is characterised by an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease. My friends use it, light-heartedly, to describe me sometimes, because they think the fact I become so engrossed in my day job, as a Communications Manager at a hospice, is a display of the darkest, most sadistic parts of my soul. They shudder when I tell them about what I might have witnessed at work today, or when I speak of the people I meet and what they're going through. 'I couldn't do it,' they say, shaking their head dismissively. 'I just couldn't be around that.'

I get it, I do. There are days when I drive home, sobbing as I clutch my steering wheel, feeling a heavy weight of disbelief and sadness and grief, wondering how and - fuck, why,  such terrible things can happen to such terrific people, but there are other days, more days, when I feel uplifted and touched and inspired. When the courage and compassion and the love: the raw humanness of it all, fills me with hope and gratitude and a sense of overwhelming privilege. Here are some of the lessons I've learnt.

We are stronger than we think

I met a lady once, an ex-teacher and adored mother who had an incurable brain tumour. Her hair was long and wavy and fierce: strands and strands of bright auburn waves, wild and unwashed, sweeping across her forehead and covering the pillow. The irony, I guess, was that there was so much life in it: so much life, and yet she lay, still and frail and confused, savaged by the cancer. Dying. 

Her husband, whose fingertips danced gently, endlessly, across her forearm, turned to me with a soft smile and said, 'I feel so lucky; we have been so lucky.'

It floored me, if I'm honest: that in the darkest moment of his life he could still be grateful, so purely grateful for having even shared a life with her at all, and I remember thinking holy. shit... We are so much more resilient than we think. We will come to the point where we once thought we couldn't go on, and we will go on. We will go on.

A person is a person is a person

Early on in my career, I sat with a complete stranger whilst he died. And yet, though he was a stranger, as I contemplated the life he may have lived, I felt close to him. I didn't know how he took his tea, or what mattered to him, or if he'd ever married or travelled the world or cradled new life in his arms, but I felt it: love, for this human, just like me, who was dying. It took me by surprise to find that I was capable of feeling love for a man who I may never have even passed in the street. I realised in a moment when I watched this beautiful, complex stranger take his last staggered breaths, that for all of our differences, we are all essentially the same. Vulnerable, mortal, and eternally bound in those things. 

The little things make a big difference

Life is life, and it's messy and unpredictable and made up of incredible days and good days and bad days and mediocre days and days that are just, well, first degree shit. But small joys? They're everywhere, always, and there will rarely be a day when these tiny precious things don't lift spirits: the warmth of the midday sun, a comforting hand on the curve of a back, beautiful spring flowers sprouting from the earth, the unexpected compliment. These simple, raw reminders of being and living and feeling and connecting mean so much to people.

You don't always have to know what to say

Culturally, we seem to have picked up a terrible habit when it comes to talking about death and grief... We don't, which doesn't bode well for actually having to confront it. A painful truth: before I worked at a hospice, I probably would have crossed the street if I'd seen someone I knew who had been recently bereaved, for fear of not knowing what to say. Now? I understand that you don't have to know. Within the whole breadth of human vocabulary, there aren't words that soften the excruciating grip of loss. There is no expectation to make it better: you can't, not really. All you can do is listen and empathise. Be patient and gentle and soft and offer practical help if you can: the home-cooked meal or support with life admin. Often people just need to be reminded that they aren't alone. 

But when you do know what to say: say it, say it, say it

Something quietly beautiful stems from vulnerability and the realisation of the true fragility of time. When I talk to people about the regrets they have, it's often one of two things. They spent too much time and energy slaving away in a job they weren't passionate about, or they didn't say that thing or say that thing enough. 'This is who I am.' 'I believe in....' 'I love you.' 'I'm sorry.' 'I miss you.' 'Thank you.' 'I'll never forget that you did this for me.' It's a cliche, sure, but life is painfully short. There is no time for 'what ifs'; be brave with your voice and make sure the people that matter to you know that they matter to you. 

Until you're dead, you aren't dead

There are a lot of misconceptions about hospices, a key one being that they are quiet, dingy places of death and sorrow. 'Hospitals without hope.' Thankfully, that perception couldn't be further from the truth. There's no getting away from the fact that sad things do happen in hospices, but ultimately, hospice care is about helping people to live their best possible life until that very last moment. People do come in for end of life care on the ward, and they're often surrounded by family and friends and may have final wishes fulfilled or their favourite meals cooked during their last days. It isn't uncommon to hear singing and laughter as you walk past the rooms. Hospices also offer drop-in support: a wealth of courses and classes, social groups, creative therapies, physio and exercise classes, gardening clubs - you name it, you'll probably find it. So many people have told me the hospice has given them their sense of self or quality of life back. That's the key word: life. Hospices are about living well.

Nurses really are unsung heroes

The compassion and tenderness and humour - the love and quiet grit - that nurses show, and the unique, soothing relationships they develop and nurture with people: spend half an hour shadowing a hospice nurse and you will witness a touching lesson in humanity.

To grow old is a great privilege

Pardon the pun, but getting older is an age-old complaint. I know a fair few people who find birthdays difficult; I'm 26 and have the odd panic about how quickly time seems to be slipping away and oh-my-goodness-I-haven't-done-that-yet and do-I-really-need-to-turn-another-year-older-already. I think we need to shift our mindsets on that matter, because to grow old really is quite something. Another year of spending time with loved ones and eating pizza and growing and learning and adventuring and being stretched and challenged and broken and fixed, another year of joy and sadness and everything in between... Let's celebrate it. Enjoy it. Embrace it. We're ALIVE!

It's not always how you spend your time, but with who you spend your time

The crux of living a good life, according to many of the people I've met? Spend it with the right people. Sometimes life is monotonous and there are days where we'll do very little at all: years - the quieter seasons of our life - that aren't particularly eventful. But that doesn't always matter. Surrounded by good people, those years can still be some of the best of our lives. The good people, the ones we need to be around, paint the world in the hues of our favourite colours. When we're with them, we laugh a little harder, think more deeply, and give more generously. And these people need to be cherished and held onto, always and always and always.


  1. This is such a lovely, heartwarming post. Thank you for writing it and reminding me to stop sweating the small stuff and living in my head, there is so much more to life! xx

    Lynsey || One More Slice

  2. Oh what a beautifully written post, you have tears streaming down my cheeks. Thank you for making me stop, and really appreciate life for all that it is once again. Thank you.
    Peta x

  3. Really good article. I work as a gardener at a hospice, and I absolutely love my job. It certainly isn't a depressing place to work and there is so much to offer and to receive. I always feel blessed in what I do.

  4. I must admit I had a cry in the middle of the train. You capture the vulnerability and humanness of life perfectly. I just sent that thing I'd been meaning to say and really appreciated those people around me who make my life. Who make me the best version of myself when I am with them. They are the good ones.
    Thank you once again

  5. Thank you. I wish I knew how to make this 'go viral'

  6. I really appreciate the how this article explained about the Hospice care, we agree this very much that Hospice is not the end, but the beginning of a different journey. And if your are looking for someone in Houston visit us today!


Thanks so much for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Don't forget to leave a link to some of your own writing; I'm always on the look out for more reading material.

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