Keeping vigil: Being present in someone’s final hours

There are times in our lives when we don’t want to be alone – for many of us, this includes when we are dying. Our vigil program allows us to accompany patients so they are not alone in the last day or two of life. A vigil might allow family members to get some sleep, enjoy a meal, and take a break. For those who don’t have loved ones by their side, a vigil can provide the kind of comfort that can only be offered by another human being.

lotus“Our goal is to create a safe, peaceful, supportive environment for our patients,” says Volunteer Coordinator Rani Ferreira, who manages the vigil program.

Vigilers offer companionship and presence. They might dim the lights, share quiet music, read, or simply sit and hold the patient’s hand. Like all of our care, it’s as individual as our patients.

Some vigils are held overnight to allow family members to get some much-needed rest. For patients with no one by their side, vigils might last for several days, with vigil volunteers tagging in for two-hour shifts, offering around-the-clock support. Vigils are wherever our patients are – anywhere from San Mateo to Half Moon Bay to Millbrae to Palo Alto, in a patient’s home or a care facility.

Coordinating a vigil is no small task. When a need arises, Rani puts the word out via email to more than 50 trained vigilers. Once volunteers respond – and they do, even with short notice and middle-of-the-night timeslots – the vigil begins.

Each vigiler interrupts his or her life to bring comfort to a perfect stranger. Some drive 45 minutes to be with someone in need. One volunteer takes the bus at 11 at night – and home again at 1am. Others volunteer for late-night shifts despite demands of work and their own families.

For a patient whose sister lives across the country and couldn’t be with her, Mission Hospice vigilers sat by, read, and prayed with her. And they helped her reach her sister by phone for their last conversation, bringing them both a sense of peace.

Another team vigiled for a 77-year-old woman whose large, loving family felt anxious and unprepared for her death. “The vigilers really helped the family understand what to expect,” explains Rani. ”And they were so grateful that the vigil volunteers were with their mom, so they could come and go as they needed to.”

In Mission House, vigilers accompanied a man with end-stage Alzheimer’s. After nearly a dozen volunteers had taken their turns, the last vigiler knew that the patient’s wife and son were on their way to the house. When her shift was up, she stayed by his side so that he was not alone, comforting him as he passed away, peacefully, before his family arrived.

This is the kind of care for which Mission Hospice is known, and the community knows what a difference it makes. Elizabeth, an experienced caregiver at Millbrae Board & Care Home, was moved by seeing our vigil teams in action. “I’ve worked with hospice patients for 14 years,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like the compassion, presence, and love you all have shown.”