By Dawn Warnaca/Volunteer Client Adviser
Choice at the end of life and in dying was a comfortable topic of conversation in the house where
I grew up.
Now I am embarking on a new avocation, helping people on their own end-of-life journeys and trying
hard to find that same level of comfort.
My mother was an early Hemlock Society member and felt strongly that the kindness we offer to animals–in ending their suffering–ought to extend to our friends and family.
We lived in liberal, cutting-edge Eugene, OR (which helps explain to some of my Republican friends how
I think). Mom collected signatures for the Death with Dignity initiative and as she aged, used the ensuing law as a reason to stay put even when moving closer to me might be easier on both of us.
Mom felt well prepared for her end of life as lung cancer, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure assaulted her body. She had spoken to her doctors about her Death with Dignity wishes, and none resisted. In the end, she was able to get her life-ending medication, but her plans were derailed by a virulent bladder infection.
Over the next year I meandered along with my life and loss, often thinking about the gratitude I felt for
the Oregon volunteer who helped Mom through her trial. And I wondered how someone could become
“someone like that.” Not long thereafter I wondered if perhaps I could become “someone like that.” In an effort to try, I Googled Death with Dignity in Washington and was transported to the End of Life Washington site. After a short contemplation, I filled out an application to become a volunteer and promptly forgot about it.
Then, just as I was getting comfortable with the difficult protocols surrounding the COVID-19 virus, I was contacted by EOLWA to confirm that I was indeed interested in becoming a volunteer. Yes, I said.
While I gained a good bit of knowledge from my education and learned much when I shadowed fellow volunteers as they met with clients and helped families with deaths, I remained humbled and uncomfortable.
Now, after months of online training, Zoom meetings, and educational opportunities, I have a couple of my own clients. That is not the end of a short-and-happily-ever-after story.
As an “apprentice,” I felt I had too little to share, and certainly no experience in how to talk about Death with Dignity to a complete stranger. I also felt an awkwardness in rooms redesigned to accommodate a hospital bed or being led down the hallway into the bowels of the home reconfigured to deal with a terminal disease.
What was it I was uncomfortable with? It took me a while to realize it was the evidence, not of life, but of the dying process I recognized. The triggers of my own experiences with my mother’s death included the carpet stains, the overwhelming amass of items without a dedicated space–pills, the walker, the wheelchair, the hospital bed, the wounds on walls and furniture, the pile of used tissues–these were like foghorns sending warning blasts into my mind. Chris Fruitrich, my mentor, did not seem to be affected in the same way I was. He shared the facts around DWD, the steps to take, and his experiences with kindness, sincerity, and gentle reality. He took clients and family through the process from first oral request to day-of-death focused on the person that mattered: The client.
Today I am more comfortable with the information, sharing it, and I feel as though I have learned that the external scars and markings of the death journey are similar and yet unique in each case.
I have appreciated having a mentor to talk to, as well as others within the EOLWA community. They have been there as I learned to navigate the EOLWA client database, and talk to physicians, families, and clients.
Now I can say that I am getting comfortable with discomfort and that has helped me to grow in confidence. I do not talk quite so fast as I did that first time. I do not worry about getting everything in perfect order. I use the End-of-Life checklist as a guide and reminder of the important points. As the COVID-19 virus has largely shut down the in-home visits, I feel the comfort and discomfort now comes with less color to my cheeks, and I am able to focus more on the needs of the client.
I have more to learn about my role with End of Life Washington, and sometimes worry I am not “someone like that.” My lesson thus far, is that getting comfortable being uncomfortable will give me the time to experience being a VCA in full.
We are actively seeking volunteers in Mason County and all parts of Eastern Washington, particularly Tri-Cities, Yakima, Wenatchee, and Spokane. If you or someone you know might be a good fit as a Volunteer Client Advisor with End of Life Washington, please visit: www.endoflifewa.org/volunteer
“The most powerful thing we can give each other in the face of death is companionship and witness.”
Greta Christina, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God