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"She wasn't alone": To the palliative care workers, who helped my aunt die with dignity.

As my aunty Rosemary lay unresponsive in her hospital bed, I didn’t realise that it would be her last day with us. But you did.

Not that you said that to us. Instead, you spoke comforting words to my uncle about Rosemary, her radiant positivity and kindness that you had witnessed in the weeks leading up to this point. 

You sat down next to him on a spare seat and listened to him share his thoughts and his sadness in losing the love of his life, you listened as he made bad jokes because you knew that it was his coping mechanism and you laughed, despite them being not very funny. 

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You said all the right things in response, not because you had a script that you followed, or because it was mechanical from doing it so many times before, but because nearly every day you had popped in to visit my aunt and my uncle since she had been admitted over a month prior. Because you had spent hours of your time with them. Because you knew them. 

While you spent time with my uncle that day, I sat holding Rosemary’s hand. On your way out, you knelt down beside me, you stroked her hair and you whispered into her ear, “It’s okay to let go now. Don’t be afraid.” Then you kissed her head and said goodbye to us.

That night she passed away. 

When I recalled this moment in the days following her death, this dedication of a volunteer, I realised for the first time how much those who work in palliative care do. While often unseen, unacknowledged and undervalued, after witnessing it first-hand I finally understood how important their roles are and how much they can make a difference. 

Because death is a part of life. And while it may be the conclusion of it, it is just as important as fighting to stay alive. And the way in which it happens, the way in which we experience our final days, can be made more positive, more painless, more dignified, more humane, more meaningful, more ‘us’ by those who surround us – whether that be our family, friends, nurses, chaplains, counsellors, doctors, death doulas, or volunteers. 

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That day in my aunt’s hospital room, as well as that volunteer, my aunt was in the constant company of my uncle - her soul mate of over 40 years, myself - her niece who was like the child she never had, and by two key palliative care nurses. 

This woman and young man monitored her pain and her medication, they tenderly washed her and changed her nightgown, while always telling her what they were about to do. 

They spoke to her using her name, asking, “Rosemary, is this okay?” 

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They kept the room dim and quiet, peaceful. They entered the room with permission from us - a privilege, not a right. 

They asked if there was anything they could do for us – coffee, tea, biscuits? We were not sick, but they knew that we were supporting someone who was and so they supported us.

While the answer was always no, they still asked anyway. Then as my uncle popped out for an hour and I spoke to my aunt, not knowing if she could hear me, but hoping she could, I started to cry. 

A nurse who was walking by saw me and entered the room. She put her arm around me and handed me a box of tissues. Then she led me to a room down the hall. 

“It's private, and you can stay in here for as long as you like and come in here whenever you need. It's so hard saying goodbye,” she said to me.

Yet she would see it all the time.

Early the next morning, when I came in to comfort my uncle and say my final goodbye, I entered the room to find my aunt resting as peacefully as could be.

Although her skin was now cold to touch, she was still kept warm under the covers, her lips glistening with lip balm, her head resting on her pillow she had brought from home. 

Although I wasn’t by her side when she passed, I know that she wasn’t alone. 

Shona Hendley, Mother of cats, goats and humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education. She is an animal lover and advocate, with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies. You can follow her on Instagram.

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