AUTHOR SHARES THOUGHTS ON FACING DEATH
By Dan M. Telvock
The Warren Sentinel
Death is rarely a hot topic of discussion. The thought of death is enough to make some people squirm.
However, when you are a hospice patient care volunteer, death is something with which you must come to terms, as did author Christine Andreae. Her new book, When Evening Comes tells the story of her emotional experiences as a volunteer with Blue Ridge Hospice.
Blue Ridge Hospice offers terminally-ill patients in Warren, Shenandoah, Clarke and Frederick counties, as well as Winchester, the opportunity to live the last few days or months of their lives in their own home, in a family-like atmosphere. Volunteers are assigned to each patient to provide support and a body to talk to.
In 1988, Andreae joined BRH as a grant writer but eventually was persuaded to become a volunteer. Andreae said it was death that stirred her curiosity about becoming a volunteer.
“That’s one of the things that drew me into the work, because I was curious about death and our culture sort of denies it exists,” said Andreae in a private interview at her secluded Bentonville home. [Death] is something nobody wants to talk about — it’s not a normal type of conversation.”
Andreae’s first hospice volunteer experience was with a patient named Bivie. Bivie was a 39-year-old married mother of two who was suffering from colon cancer. The relationship Andreae had with Bivie became tighter as time passed, yet the little things about the two will never be revealed.
In her book, Andreae writes that she eventually learned that her job wasn’t to help Bivie die, but to just be there through the ordeal. Andreae not only consoled Bivie, but her husband and children as well. Readers come away with the understanding that the task wasn’t easy, but very complicated and demanding.
“I think once I got over that fear and the idea became more familiar, it was much less stressful,’ Andreae said. “I think people are afraid of pain and are afraid of the unknown. Certainly nobody knows what’s on the other side of our death, if there is anything, but it doesn’t have to be this unspoken terror. In fact, being around people who are dying does heighten my sense of priorities in life.”
Bivie did die, but Andreae wasn’t blown away by the death. In fact, Andreae said it was an important learning experience for her. In her book, Andreae explained that she wasn’t there to help Bivie die, but rather she was just a witness to her passage. Andreae said she worried about being accepted by Bivie and the family and was anxious at times, but never lost her composure.
Bivie’s death was peaceful and might have been a perfect first experience for Andreae, as a volunteer. Not only was Andreae learning more about Bivie, she also analyzed herself quite a bit.
“How presumptuous I was at the outset to think I could somehow ‘help’ Bivie die,” Andreae wrote. “Ultimately, the process of dying — like the process of living — is a unique and solitary task for each of us. No one can ‘get it right’ for us. On the other hand, we can hear each other, learn from each other, love each other. And there is the most profound help in that — for everyone present.”
When she first wrote it, Andreae didn’t express her feelings in the book with as much detail as they are now. Her goal was to get the experiences down on paper and bring awareness to BRH’s efforts.
“After Bivie died, I decided I wanted to put it in a form that might be useful for other people,” Andreae said. “I found it hard to keep a balance. First I thought [the book] was going to be just all about Bivie, and so I didn’t put much about myself. [But] it seemed awfully stark because I realized after the two months I spent with her, I really didn’t know her that well. [It] seemed kind of stark if I left myself out, so I wrote myself back in.”
By approaching it that way, Andreae realized that the book wasn’t a day-to-day journal of someone’s death but a story about relationships.
Knowing the patient is going to die, Andreae said, forces volunteers to get to know the person in a different way. “It’s like sitting next to someone on an airplane,” Andraea explained. “It’s a very close time, it can be a very deep, personal time, but it’s not a linear kind of time, when you know what kind of cake someone likes and whether they put anything in their coffee.” Andreae called it “emergency bonding.”
The book includes seven other experiences with patients, which is about half of the total number of patients Andreae formed relationships with as a volunteer. The book reveals that not all of the experiences were as comforting as the one Andreae had with Bivie. Some patients were quiet, shy, scared and even angry. Andreae faced a lot of different emotions and roadblocks, but the most important one was death.
Andreae said she no longer fears the end, and the experiences helped her with that de-termination, and she is still a hospice volunteer, Blue Ridge Hospice’s Director of Volunteer Services, Bridgete Blevins, said Andreae is a great asset to the organization.
“I thought [the book] was wonderful,” Blevins said. “All of our volunteers are special, but the patient care volunteers are very, very special.
[The book] teaches you [a] term I never knew before, ‘actual dying.” Blevins said BRH is present in Warren County, but it needs to grow. “Our biggest need in Warren County is our profile in Warren County,” Blevins said. “We only have seven patient care volunteers in Front Royal, so we’re working hard to get more.”
Blevins said if any-one is interested in volunteering for the Blue Ridge Hospice, they don’t have to just do patient care services. She said there are administrative jobs, clerical work and delivery services volunteers can help provide instead of patient care. If interested, you can call 540-536-5210 for more information on becoming a volunteer with the Blue Ridge Hospice.
Andreae is donating all royalties from the book to the Blue Ridge Hospice. A copy of the book is available at the Royal Oak Bookstore on North Royal Avenue. Andreae, who is better known by her four mystery novels, said she is working on a new book.
“I’m staring a new novel. Certainly there will be death in this book. But I don’t know if it will be a crime, a suspense — I just don’t know,” she said.