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6 Things I've Learned About Life by Working With Hospice

03/06/2015 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

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When people find out that I volunteer to visit hospice patients the reaction is often less than positive.

There is a general distaste and fear surrounding death. It's hard for many to understand why anyone would seek out experiencing that on a regular basis.

"Why don't you work with children or something a bit more uplifting?" I've heard before.

Yes, the people I visit are facing the most difficult event we will face in life. But, I can tell you that nothing is more uplifting than seeing all the falsities of life stripped away. What remains is simply the beautiful human being and sacred soul that we all are. We spend so much time distracting ourselves, entertaining ourselves and even deluding ourselves during our lifetime.

When the end of life is near all of that falls away. People get real. What really matters rises to the surface, and quickly. Here is what I've been fortunate enough to learn.

1. Much of what you think matters now won't matter later

When I enter a patient's room I notice that there are very few furnishings around. The room is very simple. There may be a few books. More than once I've seen a bright piece of dime-store poster board covered in family photos, held together with scotch tape.

What matters in the end is family, friends and the memories you share. The story of your life matters. Not what toys you've accumulated or how you've decorated your house.

Simple is where we all end up. Maybe we should try simple on for size a bit sooner.

2. You don't need to be anything spectacular

When visiting a patient I don't feel the usual social pressure to be anything in particular. I don't need to be witty, pretty, well-dressed, or smart. I don't need anything fascinating to start a conversation about.

I just need to show up with an open heart willing to be present in a connected way with another human being. To simply care. To lift and hold them up if even for a short while. To let them know someone is there with them, there for them.

3. We have so much to learn from each other

Everyone you encounter has something to share that can enrich you. If you let your guard down and get vulnerable with people you can learn what they have to teach you. Regular daily life is usually resistant to this.

But end of life brings a willingness to show up more vulnerable and with immediacy.

Through the power of stories and laughter, through love and perspective we can all learn. We can grab onto our lessons with more ease by leaning on each other.

4. When words fail you touch matters

So many times we try to come up with the right magical words to say. Sometimes there are no words. That's what the gift of touch is for.

I recall one moment in particular visiting a patient with my son. She was very distraught, visibly upset and could not stop crying. My son didn't hesitate. He just leaned right in, bent down and gave her a great big hug.

He just kept hugging her and told her it would all be alright. He did more in that moment than some of us adults could muster in similar situations.

Don't let your fear paralyze you. Just hug or reach out and hold a hand. Our touch speaks what our words can never say.

5. What we do here in our life matters more than we can ever know

One of my patients my boys and I visited for several months. I often wondered if she even liked us being there. Sometimes she seemed glad. Other times I really couldn't tell.

One night I got the call that she was very close to passing. She had almost no family so I made sure I got there to see her that night. I was not sure she even knew I was there, but I stayed a while. The next day we received a phone call that she passed on in the morning.

About two years later I had my first (and only) spirit encounter. I recognized her essence immediately. I wondered why she came to see me, and of course why this was happening.

She only said one thing to me. "Thank you." Over and over again she just kept saying "Thank you."

At first I resisted her sentiment, telling her with my thoughts it was nothing really, and telling her I didn't really do that much. That's what I believed. She kept saying "Thank you" to me over and over again until finally I accepted her words with "You're welcome." She then left and never returned. I wasn't scared, and I never feared she would return. She seemed to have said what she came to say.

That encounter is what let me know that what we did mattered. What we all do matters. The little things are big things. You never know how big of a difference you'll make by the smallest gesture. So, we should never hesitate to extend even the smallest gesture of kindness. You can't know how much it will mean to others.

6. Joy can be found anywhere

Even in the most difficult of times there is still joy, love and even laughter to be found. Embrace all of it as it comes. As many difficult times as I have witnessed in these situations, the fear has by far been outshined by the great love I've seen, and the faith and peace I've witnessed.

If you've ever had an experience with hospice I hope the experience was uplifting to your soul at a difficult time. If you've ever considered getting involved I hope this may spark an action in you.

And I hope that this could shed a new light that the end of the journey can be every bit as beautiful as we embrace the beginning of the journey to be.