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Being an end-of-life volunteer helped me in many ways

In 2012, I made a decision to become a volunteer, end-of-life “spiritual care partner” through a program called Kol Haneshama.

When I signed up, I had four elders in my life — my parents and their longtime spouses — all of them in their 80s. My work as a psychiatric nurse had given me precious little experience with death and dying.

Kol Haneshama is a collaboration between the S.F.-based Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living (formerly the Jewish Home).

For me, getting involved seemed like a good way to learn what I needed to know about this phase of life in order to help my parents when the time came. The surprise bonus was the depth of support I received from my fellow volunteers.

The phrase Kol Haneshama is found in Psalms 150: “Kol haneshama t’hallel yah” (Let everything that breathes sing God’s praise).

We volunteers are paired with people who reside in their own homes, in nursing homes or in hospices. The 40-hour training program is intense and experiential. I remember crying a lot.

At monthly learning sessions and weekly group check-ins, rabbis teach us about spiritual-care interventions such as empathy, ways to help our residents decrease isolation by building community, and how to open conversations with our residents about their beliefs related to death and dying.

During our check-ins, many issues are raised, such as: Exactly what is spiritual care and how do we provide it? How do we sit with people suffering from dementia? What do we do if our resident asks if they are dying but the family doesn’t want them to know?

We volunteers number about 20. On average, 12 to 15 of us turn up for our lunchtime learning sessions/check-ins. Although we range in age from 28 through 83, most of us are women of retirement age. As a result of our work and our discussions, we have coalesced into a mutual support group that buoys us through the inevitable losses not only of our residents, but of those in our personal lives.

Over the last five years, three of the four elders in my life, including both of my parents, have died. I attended all of their deaths, making sure that they died as they requested, peacefully and without pain.

Even with all the support I have in my life, the loss of my parents feels like an unmooring. With both dying in their 90s, it is not the earth-shaking loss of unexpected death. Rather, it is more like letting go of a hand, one that held wisdom, history and love. I felt destabilized, my body shaken, disturbed, out-of-sync.

During the process of their dying, I leaned heavily on my family and friends for advice, guidance and just to feel their love. After each death, my Kol Haneshama group listened deeply as I described the experience in detail. Although I hate crying in front of people, tears streamed down my face. They handed me tissues, asked me questions and asked how they could help. They checked in with me individually between groups.

At a psychological trauma conference I once attended, neuropsychologist Allan Schore said, “The experience of feeling cared about in a relationship reduces the secretion of stress hormones and shifts the neuroendocrine system toward homeostasis.” The point here is that social support is the spine that holds us up during life’s most shattering moments.

Everyone heals in their own way and time, but in my experience as a psych nurse, as a spiritual care partner and as a grieving daughter, healing is enhanced when we are able to express feelings of loss in the presence of caring others.

Feeling love and concern from my family and friends has indeed helped to quiet my body and soothe my spirit. Talking with my fellow volunteers, people who understand the language, feelings and terrain of loss — as well as the underground and sometimes contradictory emotions involved — provided more support than I could have imagined.

Because of the support I received, when I think of my parents these days, I find myself smiling and shedding tears of gratitude at the same time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Laurie Barkin
Laurie Barkin

Laurie Barkin of San Francisco is a registered nurse and volunteer spiritual-care partner for residents at the Campus for Jewish Living in San Francisco. She is the author of the 2011 book “The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit.”