While many people prefer not to think of their own deaths, those that do often envisage it as during old age with loved ones by their sides. But for some people there are no loved ones. Who holds their hands in the final moments of this life’s journey?
At the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust in Truro, it is Margaret who shares that time.
For more than 18 months, Margaret has volunteered to sit with those who are dying so that no one has to die alone.
Margaret’s decision to take on this role has not been a spur of the moment act. It follows a long period of personal reflection starting with an incident when she was a young child.
“My father had come across a young lad who had lost control of his motorbike and been thrown into a field. Dad held and comforted him while he died. When I was a teenager I asked my father about it and he said that he had wanted to give the lad reassurance. He felt that if it had been one of his children, to know someone had been there would alleviate some of his pain in grieving. To this day, when I drive along that road I think of Dad caring for that young man.”
Now married with three grown up children of her own and two grandchildren, Margaret had been volunteering at the hospital for ten years, five of them as a pastoral visitor with the chaplaincy team when hospital chaplain Revd Mark Richards asked her if this was something she would consider.
Margaret has a background in nursing, Ministry to the Sick qualification from the Maryvale Institute and undertakes ongoing training with the chaplaincy team. She has also completed a two year ecumenical course Nurturing the Listening Heart which have all helped her in this role. “I am still learning but I am supported through my faith and by the amazing chaplaincy team giving me the strength to provide this help to others. I personally believe you need to be a person of faith to do this, to be able to embrace silence and pray. I don’t find it stressful and I don’t carry it away with me.”
Margaret doesn’t tell people what she does. “My husband is very supportive and my family and close friends know but I don’t do this for recognition.”
Margaret says her gift is the ability to sit still and quiet and through that she has been able to share special moments with those she has comforted.
“For me to be asked to be alongside someone when they are dying is a great privilege. It is about letting them know someone cares, there was companionship even at the end.”
Margaret provides her time in an on call way. She always begins by introducing herself to the patient and making sure they are not distressed by her presence and then she simply sits. “I don’t talk very much, simply reassuring when I do. Sometimes I hold their hand, sometimes not. One man I did not touch but every ten minutes or so he would turn his head and open his eyes looking at me. We built up a comfortable time of companionship. One lady held and stroked my hand for a few hours, I felt most humbled in that she appeared to be ministering to me!
“Doing this involves a deep level of listening to another person. To read the signs if they are uncomfortable or agitated, to gauge if they want to have their hand held, to reassure them.”
Margaret says everyone’s final moments are unique. “Some people seem to wait until they are alone to pass and other when they are with others. Some of the people I sit with are not all alone in life but their loved ones are far away and can’t make it in time.”
Margaret says many times the patient is stunned and all she does is ask them how they are feeling. “Sometimes they don’t know initially and all we do is talk. On one occasion I held a man’s hand for over an hour in silence while he just cried. It was just about giving him the freedom and comfort to do that.”
At the moment, Margaret is the only volunteer to provide this service in the hospital, although the chaplaincy team carry out the role when requested.
Hospital Chaplain Revd Mark Richards said: “Margaret does not sing her own praises but her work deserves to be recognised. We felt it was important to talk about this so those people who are alone or have no family nearby may take comfort in knowing that it does not mean there will be no one to care.
“While we are the pastoral team and while Margaret is a person of faith, this is not about religion. It is about bringing comfort and companionship to those people who wish it as they face bad news or their time of passing.”