Obituaries and Empty Spaces: Reflections on Vigil Volunteering

Debra PodishDeath and Dying

A reporter from the Chicago Sun Times called me a couple of weeks ago to inquire if I knew anything about the death or funeral details of a woman who recently died at Sentara Hospital. This woman, Louise Hutchinson, was a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and her recent obituary made reference to Hospice House & Support Care. I explained to the reporter that, through the Final Gifts program that we have recently piloted at Sentara Hospital, several Hospice House patient volunteers sat vigil with Louise in her room on Four South during her final days and through her final breaths. During our time with Louise, we learned many of the details listed in her obituary from friends who stopped in to visit her. The reporter I spoke to filled in a few more details during our brief chat and following that conversation I decided to pass along her obituary to our team of vigil volunteers.

However, the more I thought about my decision to share this particular obituary with the Final Gifts team, the more I was bothered by a sense that by choosing to single out Louise’s life of accomplishment and adventure as noteworthy to share, I had somehow discounted the lives of the several others with whom we have had the privilege of sharing their final day and hours.

In the end, one life matters no more and no less than any other… and we take our place at the bedside of those who are leaving this life regardless of the roads they’ve traveled and the things they have done, or left undone.  Louise arguably had an amazing life journey… and yet was it any more significant than the lives of those who die alone and without accolades or acknowledgement? In the end, death is the great equalizer of the human experience. We all die. Resumes fade and are eventually forgotten with the passage of time. No matter who we are, where we go or how we choose to live our lives, we are all human, recipients of  divine love and grace- whether our obituary notice spans 2 paragraphs… or 2 lines… or is absent.

I did a search for the obituaries of all of the individuals we have supported through the Final Gifts program. I found several. A few names are missing. Were their lives considered too unimportant or inconsequential for their passing to be publicly acknowledged? Did no one care enough to make note of their lives? Perhaps they did not wish to have an obituary. Perhaps their deaths are being quietly and privately mourned. We may never know.  And does it really matter that we don’t know?

Throughout the course of our lives, we strive to make the most of the time we are each allotted, to accomplish the tasks we have been given and to achieve our full potential. But at end of life, Time – that currency we use to tackle life’s great tasks and challenges – is exchanged for the primacy of Now. The gift of time becomes intertwined with the greater Gift of Presence. Doing is replaced with Being. The questions we ask ourselves each day, which guide us through the years and seasons and chapters of our journey through life, become unimportant as the answers have already been given and played out in unalterable form. The past has become the present and a beautiful mystery unfolds as life and death intersect.

It is a profound and sacred privilege that we who are present with the dying have been given; honoring the lives of others by bearing witness to their death. It matters not to us what they have accomplished – or not accomplished – we simply choose to be there with them because each of their lives mattered.

Another woman passed away at Sentara Hospital last week without family involvement or support. Although there was no written acknowledgement of her life or her death in the newspaper, a Final Gifts vigil volunteer sat beside her and held her hand as she took her final breath. I  believe that the simple gift of her presence gave an unspoken tribute to the life of one whose name was simply an empty space in the obituary section, but who now holds a full space in our story and in our memory.

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Debra Maviglia Podish, BSW is the Director of Patient and Family Volunteer Services at Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg. Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg is a 501(c)(3) community supported social model hospice which provides 24 hour care for terminally ill individuals and their loved ones, when dying at home becomes unmanageable. The Hospice House itself is a spacious residence that is a "home away from home" for our guests and their families. Our support care services also include a vigil program, companionship in families' homes and extensive bereavement programs for families throughout our community. Families never receive a bill for any of our services, thanks to the generosity of our community. For more information about Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg, or to make a gift, please visit www.williamsburghospice.org or call 757-253-1220.