Volunteer Linda Miller at St. Mary’s Hospital on the importance of empathy and compassion, and how it takes a village to care for the dying
“We must encourage parents to listen to and observe their babies. And at the end of life, we need to encourage families to listen to the dying person, what us being said and not being said. This it hard but really important. I see this as my role as a volunteer.”
By Devon Phillips. The transition from pre and postnatal care to working as a volunteer in palliative care has been perfectly natural for retired nurse Linda Miller. With five years of volunteer experience under her belt, Linda feels privileged to be able to listen and be present for those at the end of life and for their loved ones. I met with Linda at St. Mary’s Hospital, Montréal, Québec.
Q: What brought you to volunteering and St. Mary’s Hospital?
A: It was a natural evolution from what I have done in the past in my personal and professional life . As a retired nurse, this fits into this stage of my life. Working with people at the end of life has probably been in the back of my mind all my life.
I trained in the 60s when nurses went into residence for three years. We moved to Québec City in ’69 and at the end of the 70s I was hired by the CLSC to teach parent-child care, very much integrating fathers into the life of having a baby. I visited many homes in Ste. Foy and Sillery. While working I completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in counselling at Laval University.
I have always been aware that any life changes bring about the need to adapt to new situations and often one has to grieve for what has been lost. The same kind of qualities that I developed with the women who became pregnant are the same qualities that are needed at the end of life - listening, empathy, compassion, and accompaniment. Meanwhile, I have had personal losses as well and people that I have accompanied. That has added to my experience and sensitivity.
Q: Can you speak to the parallels you make between the beginning and the end of life because that may be a surprising connection for some people.
A: When a baby comes into your life, there are losses because you have to give up a certain amount of yourself. In the 70s I prepared couples to request certain interventions with the idea that you could control the birthing experience, but there are things that are completely out of your control. At the end of life it’s the same. There’s a whole lot of giving up of control. That is one of the parallels, the grieving part of it. Also there’s the sense of being alone, of being isolated.
Q: In your role as a volunteer, how do you interact with patients and their loved ones?
A: I try to meet people where they are. If people don’t want to talk, I will just say, “ I am here”. Sometimes I bring flowers, a newspaper, something practical like a glass of water and that may open a door to talking. I come in early in the mornings, and I may say, “how was your night?” because the nights are hard. I play it by ear and never push. Sometimes, when appropriate, I say “yes, this is a journey you did not choose, isn’t it?” This may help the patient open up. There is no magical formula. Sometimes they don’t talk about what is happening now but something joyful about their life before. It’s not always just talking about what you are living in the present.
I find that caregivers and family are often the ones I spend time with. The wife, who for five nights slept beside her loved one, needs someone to take her into the visitor’s room and sit and listen, listen about the funeral arrangements, listen about whatever. Not very many people have time to sit and listen.
I have done this for five years here. Some days I don’t think anything significant happens but I have an image about links in a chain. I feel that if I can be the person that they need at that moment, then I am a link and that will open the door for someone else.
Q; You seem fulfilled in your role as a volunteer. Am I correct that you both give and receive a lot doing this work.
A: Yes, but we have to be very careful. When you volunteer, you do not volunteer in order to get. Being human, if I didn’t get anything out of it, it would be hard to continue so there is a certain amount of feeling that you are in right place at the right time but if nothing happens, nothing happens, and that is okay.
A young man at the palliative care conference told a story which I identified with completely. He was working with a dying patient and while he was there, a nurse came in to look at the IV and this nurse said nothing but she smiled at the person. And the patient said to him, “I really like that nurse, when she smiles, I feel cared for”. It was her presence that was important.
Q: In a hospital setting, is there room for different types of volunteers, including those who have no experience in the helping professions?
A: Yes, definitely. You don’t have to be nurse or have experience in counseling to do this. For example, there is a group of women who come on Wednesday afternoon to make lemon and date squares and they are so appreciated by the staff, visitors and patients. We need people like this. We need people to make smoothies. We have someone who comes in and does manicures and pedicures. We have other volunteers who are really good at setting up CDs and doing technical things. It takes a village to raise a child and it’s the same here on the palliative care unit. I think we need to be part of a team where everybody does what they feel comfortable with.
Q: What have you learned through your volunteer work?
A: I have learned how to care but not be destroyed by that caring and how to be compassionate. I have learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is more like “poor you” but empathy is a bit more detached: “I hear what you are saying and it must be hard”. And when they tell me something, I don’t carry it because I can’t fix it.
I am very comfortable here. There was an article I read about how stressful it is to be in palliative care but I think of this work as a privilege. People let me into a very special, very private part of their lives. And I am always very touched by that.