By Charlie Izzo

The hard work of reflecting on our own experiences at the bedside of dying others is an often neglected one for hospice workers. Making a place to tell our stories, for process and support was one of the ideas I had in starting Kairos. I have encouraged network members to share there stories here. Here is one from hospice worker Charlie Izzo telling the story of his first vigil assignment. – Jeanne Denney

I had tried on a few hats at the hospice where I volunteer: direct and palliative care, fund-raising , community outreach, memorial service and activities. Now the vigil care training was over, I was about take another, deeper risk as a vigil volunteer. It was a little scary. I have had a close relationship with death over recent decades. My wife of 20 years died in `92, my dad in `88, my father-in-law in `96, among many others. There is a sense of fear, awe and learning, as well as adventure, joy and laughter about it all. When I am with people dying I have often felt that the Universe was letting me in on something only a few had access to.

My first vigil care client, Sally, was an 86 year old woman who had a 92 year old husband was in another nearby hospital. Her feeding tubes had been removed, her IV stopped the day before, and her family had signed an order not to resuscitate (or DNR). I was also told I might meet her daughter and another family member, who had been sitting a long vigil for many hours over many days. “A respite is needed.”

In all Hospice assignments, there`s always a sense of a higher calling. I feel fearful, yet there is something magnetic I could describe it as a force, just above my head, causing me to be pulled upward somehow, a feeling of weightlessness in my stomach also. Having had taken many risks in my life, I reluctantly drug my fear behind me and took the job and headed to the third floor of the local hospital to see Sally later that day. I stopped to check in briefly at the nurses’ station at around 5:00 p.m. The nurse looked relieved. “It`s great you are here, she is at the end, her family needs a break.” It was obvious Sally was dying.

Down the hall two middle aged women hovered around the only bed in the room close to the only window. Glancing out the window I was conscious of the clear, crisp night outside. As I entered the room I introduced myself to Sally`s daughter Emily and her cousin Terry. At first there they seemed surprised and uncomfortable. After we talked a moment, a look of relief came over them. They had been there for days and couldn`t pull themselves away. Sally was lying still, eyes closed, mouth open, with soft sounds coming from her throat. Emily introduced me to her, telling her why I was visiting, and where I was from. Emily and Terry seemed to have a hard time leaving. They fussed with little things, telling me what to do in case she died while they were gone. They told me about the previous days how a Rabbi visited, as well as the other children and grandchildren. They asked about how I got into this work and we talked about my own grief and recovery work. I also talked to them about a sense of duty to be of service, to “show up.” It was clear that they didn`t want to leave, and it was nearly 6:00 before they appeared satisfied that it was safe to leave Sally with me. “We`ll be back at 8,” Emily reassured Sally. Emily seemed to know her Mom could understand.

When Emily and Terry finally said their goodbyes, I pulled up a chair next to the bedside, opposite the window. I was conscious of how small the bed looked in the large room. “Hi Sally, I`m Charlie from Hospice. I`ll be here for awhile with you.” Quiet at last, I put my hand on top of Sally`s hand. A very special space immediately opened up. Into it I felt Sally`s spirit right there, just above her chest and head, smiling. There is a kind of knowing in this state, an acknowledgement as two souls nod invisibly to each other. I sensed Sally was waiting for her family to leave. “It`s OK to die now if you choose, your work here is finished, Emily and Terry are away. It is a perfect opportunity to leave, it`s just you and I and this is why I`m here.” As I waited, I said some silent prayers to myself, sensing something was happening. I knew because my chest and face were full, flush, tingling with a sense of openness I have experienced before at the deathbed of others. It is rare to look through this window into death. It is a seeing that is not with the eyes so much as with the body. When I glanced at the time it was just 6:08 PM. Sally was dead.

I sat for another 15 minutes and prayed silently. The floor was unusually quiet for a hospital. In that space it felt like a gift, or a pearl, had just been given to me. As I got up to leave, communication with Sally seemed to have transformed, as if she came along with me and we were now companions. There was a sense of joy about it. I stopped at the nurses’ station to report Sally`s death. The nurse looked at me with both gravity and lightness, “You`ve done your job. I will contact the family.” She, too, seemed to have had been given access to that Universal window.

When I got to the parking lot, it was still crisp and the sky very clear. I spent a few minutes looking up at the 3rd fl window, the brick siding, and the sky, visualizing Sally`s path of departure. Sally seemed to be there bigger than before, and as if she were a few hundred feet above, looking at me smiling up toward her. It was reminiscent of the other deaths, my wife`s particularly. I could see further somehow, unsure what I was looking at, something like a child seeing a larger world. It was as if we were co-conspirators in rebellion against the idea that dying is bad. And we had done it together.

Though it was obvious in hindsight, it was the next day before I realized that Sally needed her family to leave before she could die. Sally and I were the only ones who knew it was my first time out at a vigil. A very special vigil it was. What A Gift

Charlie Izzo is a hospice worker and volunteer in the children’s bereavement program at United Hospice of Rockland. He is also a Real Estate Agent in Rockland County, New York and father of two.