Having worked in Senior Services prior to my current role at the Science Museum, I’ve had repeated experiences helping volunteers through the passing of an elderly client. It was never easy to bring the news to the volunteer for so many reasons; some more obvious and some not.
HIPAA restricts the sharing of information regarding clients’ health, which sometimes made the death seem sudden to the volunteer since they didn’t know there was anything wrong. And even after death there were defined boundaries I worked to enforce to protect the client’s loved ones’ time and privacy. Permission was always asked from those grieving before memorial or contact information was shared with a volunteer who wanted to pay their respects.
Whenever I needed to contact a volunteer about a death, I tried to learn as much as I could about their ongoing interaction so I could try to predict how distraught the volunteer would be. I kept notes about how long they had been interacting, how often, and to what degree so I could use it in just this type of situation to prepare myself for sharing the difficult news. I made calendar reminders and database notes to myself to check in with them 3 months down the road. Many think technology gets in the way of conveying personal information but with the number of people we interact with on a daily basis, I believe it only helps to ‘keep it all straight.’
As I became accustomed with this type of conversation, I made sure to take the time to truly empathize with the volunteer if they needed support. Although the conversations were done over the phone many times, they were done when I had no other distractions. Not knowing the volunteers views on death, religion, their previous experience or sensitivity, I tried to support each of them without including any of my own views into the conversation. Sometimes volunteers wanted to share theirs and sometimes they wanted to leave the conversation to deal with the news on their own and I followed their lead as to where they wanted the conversation to go.
Even with these lessons learned and this experience as a guide, I still feel unprepared when we have to help our program move through the death of a current or emeritus volunteer; it is so different. With clients there is a degree of separation that allows you to look in on the grief and function through it so much easier than when you must function to support those around you while grieving as well. I feel fortunate to have this experience to draw on though as I work through this more difficult maze.
We see a snippet of a volunteer’s life when they come in to work, without knowing about health issues or how aging is affecting them personally. And even when we are ‘in the know,’ the news of a volunteer passing is still difficult. It ends up being our job to communicate the news to volunteers, staff, to respond to the family with our condolences, to share pictures and memories; tasks far from what most of us have on our job descriptions. A graduated step from the single conversations I once had with volunteers about their loss of a client, it is an event that has become worthy of an internal communication plan. A cold way to think about such an emotional subject, yes. But to me, nothing feels better when you are faced with an emotional loss and a time when your support of others is key, then a Word Document that tells you exactly what to do.
Advice (book listed on http://www.energizeinc.com):
Dush, D.M., “Balance and Boundaries in Grief Counseling: An Intervention Framework for Volunteer Training,” American Journal of Hospice Care, 1988 (4)
Molly Kennedy Lageson
Volunteer Resources Specialist, Science Museum of Minnesota