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What being a Hospice volunteer taught me about death and life

Father and Son at Cottage Hospice

Anna Tims, a writer and volunteer at Hospice in the Weald, has penned her thoughts about giving her time to help patients and their loved ones in their final days.

The article features in The Observer Magazine from The Guardian and talks about volunteering at Cottage Hospice, our in-patient care ward in Five Ashes, East Sussex. Cottage Hospice is a beautiful in-patient care setting designed to provide the best care possible to patients and their loved ones. Often described as either a hotel or home from home, we aim to make stays as comfortable as possible, encouraging patients and their families to bring whatever they want and need to make their rooms feel the way they want. Whether that means bringing, photos, plants, or pets there aren’t many restrictions (as long as it’s safe and fits through the doors).


Anna Tims - taken by Kate Peters

Volunteering has changed my understanding of life and death

My introduction to death came in a traffic jam. I turned on the radio and heard a woman describe her father’s final days in a hospice. His end, she said, was a strangely warming memory because of the hospice volunteers who entered the pain of strangers and held their hands as they faced the unknown. In her grief, she explained, she’d encountered humanity at its best. I forgot my frustration at the static traffic as I listened. The prospect of a missed train and crowding deadlines was unimportant, seen through the lens of loss. It was an instant realisation that I wanted to be where life matters most, which is when it is ending. I wanted to be one of those hospice volunteers.

…Over the months, I think I’ve started to understand. The cottage is a pause, a bubble, and in that pause families, in coming to terms with death, can make sense of their life together before the agonising step into the future.

In the outside world, death is hidden and unmentionable. In the hospice, it’s what unites all those there, and, in being acknowledged, it is dignified. It can be a relief for relatives to talk openly about their fears and grief. It is an honour for staff and volunteers to be there to listen. “I feel this place has wrapped its arms around me,” a young wife told me after terrifying weeks of waiting in hospitals.

The observer illustration - nathalie lees

Death is something we all need to understand

To my surprise, I found death in the abstract more frightening than death personified in individuals who can squeeze your hand and share a joke and who, while losing their life, radiate their humanity.

Six months after I’d started at the Cottage Hospice, my father was taken ill. He died 10 days later. His sickness was sudden, but the hospice had prepared me. I dread loss more keenly, perhaps, than I ever did, having witnessed families watch their lives fall apart, but death itself has seemed less frightening since I confronted it there.

Now, when a new day breaks, I try to see it from their perspective and cherish the humdrum as a gift. And when I finish a hospice shift, I want to take back into the outside world that sense of life stripped back to its essentials, where what ultimately matters is love.

Family walking through a field

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