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How Serving Dying Strangers Has Changed My Life

I no longer feel the loneliness I've endured for years.

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Mature and younger hand holding each other
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Waiting on the sidewalk outside church under a cloudless sky, I scanned the crowd.

My primary school classmates in plaid jumpers, navy slacks and white button-down shirts escorted their grandparents into the large stone structure.

My toes curled inside my patent leathers. At seven, I felt alone and forgotten, a misfit even on Grandparents’ Day. All but one of my grandparents had died years before my birth. My sole grandma, an octogenarian, lived in New York and rarely saw my Missouri family.

I turned, and my neighbor Mrs. K extended her hand. “Hello there,” she said softly. Her smooth gray hair framed her cherubic face. She reminded me of Mrs. Claus. My mom had asked Mrs. K to be my surrogate grandmother. I wanted her to be my real grandmother. But our interactions were mostly waves across our lawns.

Tess Clarkson portrait
Theo R. Welling

My real grandmother died when I was 15. At her funeral, I went through the motions of a grieving granddaughter detached, devoid of a significant relationship. Mrs. K died after my parents moved. By then, I had left home for college in Chicago and law school in New York. I worked as a lawyer regulating financial markets when two deaths — my friend’s and mother’s — pushed me to train as an end-of-life doula and learn more about the dying process. Afterward, I volunteered with a hospice to visit patients with a life expectancy of less than six months.

Each Sunday, I went to my assigned patient’s apartment and provided socialization. Some told me about their childhoods and deceased spouses. One shared her travels. Another recited poetry. Walking home, my mind flipped to my grandparents, and an ache crept into my chest. What stories would they have told me? What memories did we miss?

One patient’s granddaughter called in the middle of a visit. She was in Israel at a kibbutz.

After hanging up, the patient asked me, “Do you know what a kibbutz is?”

I shook my head.

She explained her granddaughter’s service and accommodations. She told me about her academic accomplishments and acceptance into a renowned university. I could see such pride.

Her love for her granddaughter triggered the emptiness I felt at seven, waiting on the sidewalk in front of church. But then my patient took my hand. “You’re a special girl.”

“Thank you,” I muttered. I could barely speak. Her words fed the unconditional love I craved for decades from my grandparents.

Seeing her each Sunday morphed into the highlight of my week. I often lost track of time at her bedside, talking, looking at old photos or listening to stories.

At her shiva, my emotions tumbled between sadness and gratitude as I grieved with her family. I didn’t expect to have such a meaningful connection after seeing her only once a week.

Months later, I visited another ailing woman and played jazz for her on my phone. She lay in bed with her eyes closed, and the joy on her face radiated through me. I cherished witnessing what enlivened her. We spoke very little, but each musician seemed to bond us somehow and created a special cocoon in the room where she would likely die.

“I need to rest,” she said, signaling the end of each visit. She exerted effort, reaching toward me and squeezing my hand. She smiled, and the little kid in me felt seen and valued.

Getting assigned to a nursing home brought me several new patients. One older man gave me gardening tips and asked about my life. “Want to take a walk?” he asked, and I wheeled him around his floor. He introduced me to staff and other residents, rattling off my resume and making me blush. But like a sponge, I absorbed his recognition. Several peers commented that my volunteer work must be depressing. But each time, I replied with a quick “No.” I love connecting with my patients, hearing their stories and providing a peaceful presence. Moreover, what my peers and even I didn’t understand was how serving the dying actually helped me.

I no longer feel the loneliness triggered by waiting on a sidewalk for my pretend grandma, Mrs. K. The lack of grandparents that haunted me is gone. Random people allowing me, an outsider, to visit them in their final months, weeks or hours have given me a surprise gift — a grandparent-like community. Our brief meetings have created coveted memories and, through them, healed my inner child emptiness.

For more information on how to live a happier life, go here.

How many of you knew your grandparents? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships