Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why do I do it?

Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, after the inevitable "I could never do that!", they often ask what led me to become a hospice social worker. Quite a few things have happened in my life to put me on this path. I give them a condensed version but you, lucky readers, will get the extended cut.

My maternal grandparents have 12 siblings each, creating a very large extended family. Unfortunately, this side of the family also has quite the health history, including just about every kind of cancer you can imagine. Consequently I've been to my share of funerals starting at a young age. In fact, my mom recently told me I was just a few months old when I went to my first funeral. I don't think I knew any of the deceased very well at that time. I would say the first time a relative died where I felt affected by the death was my great aunt Jean (not quite sure how old I was, probably between 8 and 10). Despite the sadness associated with funerals, I actually think it's great that I was exposed to death at such a young age. I was able to see grown-ups model healthy ways of expressing grief and also learn that death is a part of life. These are both lessons that children will learn at some point in life; it does not help to shelter them from those realities.

The first funeral I remember was for my great-grandmother when I was in first grade. The church and potluck after are hazy memories. What stands out to me is what happened after that. My mom took the potluck leftovers back to my grandparent's house to put away while my grandparents finished visiting with people. She, my brother, and I arrived only to find that the house was locked (they never locked their house as they live in a farm community and this was the mid1980s). It was a hot day. There were concerns of salmonella if the food didn't get into a refrigerator soon. My mom demonstrated her talent for breaking into houses, however, and spied a window in the garage. She drove the car next to the garage and then- cue music- hoisted me through the open window so I could open the garage door and let everyone in. I remember thinking how great it felt to help other people. (The funny part of this story is that after all that, the back door was also locked- this door was definitely never locked- so my mom ended up taking out the window air conditioning unit and pushed my brother through.) Mom told me when I was little and someone got hurt on the playground, I would always run over to them and try to help. She thought I would end being a nurse.

When I was in 5th grade, my brother's best friend M was diagnosed with brain cancer. They were in 3rd grade at the time. On bad days, M's mom would call and ask if I could play with M's younger sisters. While I provided distraction from the tragedy unfolding downstairs, M's parents could focus on his pain control and spend precious time with their dying son. M died later that year. It was also around this time that I discovered Lurlene McDaniel books. McDaniels writes books about children with terminal illnesses, sometimes they do not survive. Being there for M's family in my own way and then reading about people who worked with terminally ill children led to my interest in someday working with that population.

The next notable death was my great-uncle Carl when I was 14. He had brain cancer and stayed at my grandparent's house during his final months. My grandma was his caregiver and they did get hospice (although she told me later that the support they received while Aunt Teresa was on hospice in 2006-7 was above and beyond the hospice care that existed in 1994. I don't remember anything about Carl's hospice experience, but my family always called Grandma the original hospice caregiver. Grandma was always taking care of others and I'm sure this rubbed off on me too.) Uncle Carl was a strong Christian and this strongly influenced his attitude regarding cancer. This in turn impacted my own faith and got me back on the right track with God. As I got older, I naturally formed stronger relationships with my extended family and friends, a very positive thing. But this also meant I was exposing myself to more loss. Through it all, I continued to feel that it must serve a purpose.

Starting in high school, I realized that I was a gifted listener. Friends were always coming to me for advice- even on matters with which I had no personal experience. It seemed that I was destined to be a counselor. Only I decided that I would be an English teacher, thanks to my lifelong love of reading and writing. I even convinced my favorite English teacher to let me do an independent study with him. I developed 3 lesson plans for sophomores during the first semester of my senior year. Mr. H. even adopted one of my lesson plans into his curriculum! I chose my college based on its excellent reputation for secondary education.

Still, I couldn't shake my interest in psychology and cancer. I signed up for psychology and sociology classes. An assignment for my sociology class was to learn about a job in the field. Thanks to a connection, I learned about someone who was a social worker at Children's Memorial Hospital. I was absolutely entranced by the job description but I didn't change my major until the end of the year. My college didn't have a social work program so I became a sociology major with a social welfare concentration and a psychology minor. I briefly volunteered at a children's grief group until life circumstances intervened. While I still wanted to work with terminally ill children, I thought it was important to explore other areas of social work. I started working in residential care with teenage juvenile delinquents before my senior year of college. While I enjoyed developing relationships with the girls, it was exhausting work and reinforced my interest in health care social work.

Somehow I landed in an awesome MSW program for grad school. My first year fieldwork placement was at a county health department in their Family Planning and Prenatal Clinic programs. We had to interview for our second year fieldwork placements and while I looked into and interviewed at a couple of hospitals, I ended up at a hospice in the city. I found that hospice was a good place for me. By virtue of my background, I was already familiar with many types of terminal illness, I offered a calming presence and a listening ear, and I found myself able to advise people in their darkest hour. I found the purpose in having experienced past losses- I could finally help others with what I knew. I never envisioned myself in hospice, much less enjoying the work, but it seems like a perfect fit. I love hearing life stories, soaking up their wisdom. I even love the perspective that the crazy families offer: gratefulness for my wonderful family and network of friends.

I like to tell people that I did my fieldwork placement in hospice and never looked back but that's not entirely true. I'm still interested in working with terminally ill children and I'd like to do more bereavement work. What is true that I feel called to my job without a doubt. While I don't always understand what it is within me that connects with the ill and grieving, I strongly believe that God has gifted me to do this and that He gives me the strength to do it. I am grateful that my experience in hospice was helpful to my family while my great aunt Teresa and Grandma were under hospice care. As difficult as that time was, I believe that God placed me in my job for that very reason. I don't know exactly what the future will hold but it'll be interesting to find out.

1 comment:

SocialWrkr24/7 said...

Great post - its kind of fun to think about what led us to this place huh?

And, I don't think I mentioned that I went to a used bookstore last summer and found a whole bunch of Lurlene's books... I bought all the ones I could remember reading!