Tag Archives: hospice volunteer

Learning to Sit Vigil with the Dying

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops her eyes watching over her dying daughter's face to illustrate sitting vigil with the dying.Always squeamish about facing death, after years of volunteering solely with the bereaved through Hospicare and Paliative Care Services, I finally attended the workshop for how to sit vigil with the dying. The main idea of sitting vigil is to listen, stay present, and direct your energy and compassion to the one who is dying. To practice this, toward the end of the training, the participants paired off for an exercise where we took turns playing each of two roles, the Thinker and the Listener. First my partner sat, thinking of something. I, the Listener, was to simply watch her and be with her. Silently. This, I imagined, would be the harder part. But it went smoothly as I observed attentively, breathing in sync with my partner for what seemed like forever, until the time was called and we switched roles.

I intended to fill my time as Thinker with memories of my daughter who died seven years ago. Marika having tantrums, rolling her eyes when she disagreed with me, laughing, her hoop earrings and iridescent eye makeup…. But shortly after I started thinking, something unexpected happened. Instead of remembering our sweet and sour interactions, I was transported back to our last two days together, when I sat vigil with her, watching for the tiniest twitch of her brows. Staring at her face to remember her features forevermore.

Suddenly something in the exercise went screwy. My partner seemed to be me. And I felt like I was my daughter. Looking up into brown eyes that waited patiently with me, I became Marika, lying still, waking occasionally from sedation to find my sad loving eyes fixed on her face. The rest of the world disappeared beyond the bubble that contained our two sets of eyes.

Over the past seven years, I’d never thought of those last days from Marika’s point of view. I’d never considered that my being there, caressing her with my eyes, might be a comfort to her. Before this, I couldn’t have imagined what a gift it was, for us both, to just be there together at the end.

How could I possibly try to illustrate this? I don’t know. But I do know, now, how I will sit with the family members, friends, or strangers I am privileged to be with in their final hours.


Have you ever sat vigil with a dying person? What gifts can we give to someone who is dying?

We are ALL Dying

A woman with coffee photoshopped by Robin Botie in Ithaca, New YorkWe are ALL dying. This is what I tell myself, driving to the hospice center to train to be a morning-shift kitchen volunteer. Even with weeks of hospice training, I’m still nervous about interacting with people who are dying. I don’t want them to see behind my eyes, the hidden thought: you might not be here when I return next week. So I keep telling myself we’re All leaving town sooner or later – some of us just have an earlier flight.

Shadowing the Thursday-morning volunteer, I operate the sanitizing dishwasher and the coffee machine. She shows me where to find spatulas, and introduces me to the staff and the routine. Then she has me make an egg, my first egg for someone who is not in my immediate family.
“I’m not much of a cook,” I apologize before I’ve even cracked the shell. This might be someone’s last egg so I want it to be good.

“We’re all leaving town, we’re all leaving town,” I say to myself as I follow Thursday-Morning into a darkened room and place the tray with the egg and a tippy-cup of milk before a pale man in a hospital bed. I follow as we peek into rooms to offer breakfast.
When we return to the kitchen, a tall man in boxer shorts is rummaging about. He does not look like he’s dying. He looks like he’s hungry.
“Are you finding what you need?” Thursday-Morning asks. The man walks out with a big bowl of chocolate ice cream.
“That’s my kind of breakfast,” I say to him. But he is focused on his dish.

A white-haired woman sits at the dining room table waiting for her eggs. I bring her coffee on a tray hoping she won’t get impatient as I scramble around to help Thursday-Morning make a perfect egg and piece of toast. The woman is very polite to me. She’s not scary at all. And she’s in no hurry.

When the morning shift is over I drag my feet saying goodbye. I find myself smiling, looking forward to the next time.
Then, in my car heading home, I have a flashback of long ago breakfast trays with bright cloth napkins, jolly eggs and toast, and smoothies. To  coax my daughter out of bed for high school, and later for morning drives to the hospital, I’d bring her breakfast-in-bed trays.
“Mom, you make the worst pancakes,” she used to say.

I cry when I remember. Marika, do you believe this? Look where I am. I’m gonna make breakfast trays for all these people now.
But I quickly wipe my tears. There’s something else to worry about now: when I do my kitchen shift, what if they ask me to make pancakes?