It’s a well-used cliché, but Providence Care volunteer, 53-year-old Shelley Kirby, truly does light up every room she walks into.
“Connecting with people is a big part of who I am,” says Shelley. “We all long to know and be known, and over the years, this has fueled my longing and the propelling I have to connect with people.”
Shelley is one of eight volunteers who support palliative care patients and their families at Providence Care Hospital. Starting at the beginning of 2023, she is one of the newer volunteers on the unit. Shelley provides comfort and companionship for patients in their final days who might not have family nearby. She also serves as a compassionate pillar of strength and humour for the family members of patients she meets.
“I look at this as a real honour. I get the privilege to walk into a room at the end of someone’s life story here on earth and share this special space – if they want to talk or simply be together in silence. It’s the most sacred opportunity to witness what’s happening in these moments of life. It’s been life changing actually, for me.”
At Providence Care, volunteers who decided to spend their time on palliative units undergo a two-day training course that focuses on end-of-life care, spiritual health, grief and bereavement, family dynamics, communication, boundaries and Hospice Kingston. After the training, new volunteers like Shelley are mentored by lead volunteer, Catherine Walker, who is also a Death Doula in the community.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and about life in general through this job,” explains Shelley. “Initially I thought I wanted to cheer people up but I had the realization that they’re dying – it’s their right to feel the way that they feel. If there is anything I can do to support them and share in an experience with them, then I try to do that.”
Shelley says she always tries to find a common interest with those she meets and is always thinking about how she can be helpful; most recently bringing a thanksgiving dinner to the unit for hungry families. The drive for her, she explains, is to provide the same compassionate comfort she received when she lost her father to COVID-19 two years ago in Winnipeg, the city she grew up in.
“I flew out to be with him, but I couldn’t enter the hospital because of COVID. I was able to FaceTime him often and while for some people it was horrible, it didn’t feel horrible for me at the time because I was able to visit with him virtually. Amazingly, there was a staff member there with him 24/7 to make sure he was calm and attended to, and that person was my lifeline. And this has been a fuel for me because I really believe that no one should die alone.”
As a way to help her process her experiences with the patients at end-of-life, Shelley has turned to poetry, art, and music, sometimes sharing what she creates with the patient’s families after they have passed.
“I was told everyone needs to have a ritual for themselves after being with someone who has passed. After being with a patient recently, I found myself compelled to draw and then I thought, ‘maybe this will be my ritual.’”
Director of Volunteer Services at Providence Care, Janet Hunter, says each volunteer she works with brings a special piece of themselves to their role.
“It takes a special person with special skillsets to volunteer with this population,” says Janet “Staff are so appreciative and supportive of our volunteers on the unit. Each of our volunteers brings something unique to the role, enabling staff to focus on other aspects of care.”
The support that Volunteer Services provides does not go unnoticed by Shelley either.
“It’s really empowering to be a part of a team where you feel needed,” says Shelley through tears. “I feel important, significant, valued, trusted, celebrated; it’s a beautiful team to be a part of. It would be enough just to be in the room with someone, but to know you have a strong base underneath you that’s holding you and making space for you – it’s powerful. Knowing that if you’ve had a hard week you’ll hear, ‘take the time you need, we don’t want you to burn out, it shouldn’t cost you more than you offer.’ It’s really beautiful.”
Shelley says she is changed every time she is invited to share in a patient’s final days. It is a journey that is only just begun for Shelley. She has started the interview process to also become a volunteer with Hospice Kingston, joining those in their final days in their homes.
“Being with a family at the end of a long journey, well it’s like watching a first-time dance. My job is to make space, follow the rhythm, and match the dynamics – it’s not my dance but it’s an honour to be there when it happens.”
As we mark this World Hospice and Palliative Care Day we celebrate individuals like Shelley whose compassion and light brings ease and comfort to the journey of hospice and palliative care.