I sit down in the chair opposite yours. It’s a lovely day outside: Spring peeks her head out along the esplanade, the sun warms our space beside your bed.
You don’t know me. I am a stranger to you, but you let me stay anyway.
Our conversation starts slowly: small talk about the weather, hospital food. Then we shift; the gradual dance of vulnerability between strangers begins. You take a breath, and begin letting me into your life. I listen and learn. About your frustrations. About how long you have been here, in this hospital, beneath the fluorescent lights. About the lack of answers, the constant struggle for control. I nod and murmur.
Now you talk about your family. About feeling like a burden to them, being here, sick, dying. Now you talk about depression, the loneliness of death, how narrow the tunnel becomes when you’re heading towards its end. You talk now as a human being struggling to hold onto your humanity.
Gingerly, I reach across the sun-lit space. I hold your hand, but I say nothing. What is there to say in the face of human suffering? Where words fail, touch and silence speak.
For the past two years I have been blessed to work as a palliative care volunteer in a hospital. My job is simple: to provide company to patients who are chronically ill or dying. Really, I just serve as a companion – to sit with, to talk to, to watch TV beside, to listen to music with. In this role, doing these simple things, I have received one of the greatest gifts of my life: through others’ stories of suffering and joy, I know the beauty of a shared humanity.
If healthcare is defined as curing or fixing, then I am essentially helpless as a volunteer – I have no skills, knowledge, or experience that can cure or fix these people. However, I have come to learn through time spent with my patients that sometimes it is not knowledge, tools, or skills that are required for healing. Rather, healing can be wrought by each of us simply as we are, as people. Sometimes all we need to provide a moment of healing for one another lies in the ways in which we are able to hold, sit, and simply be in each other’s company.
From my patients, I’ve learned something both humbling and empowering: in a world where we are constantly trying to fix, sometimes it’s okay to just sit together and be broken in our own separate ways. It is through the cracks within us that the healing enters.
Claire Stauffer is a recent graduate of Boston College, where she majored in Biology and English. She serves as an EMT-B and palliative care volunteer in the Boston area. Her first narrative piece “Weight” was featured in the Boston College Medical Humanities Journal and on the HSC College Voices blog.