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Loving comfort

Brattleboro Area Hospice continues its support of local residents

BRATTLEBORO—“The reason we grieve is because we loved someone,” said Susan Parris, executive director of Brattleboro Area Hospice (BAH).

But, adds the 16-year hospice veteran, “loss is a part of life.”

When people experience losing someone dear, Parris said “it is valuable to talk out emotions.”

Parris said part of the grieving process includes remembering how someone touched one’s life and figuring out the emptiness in the realization that “they’re gone and I’m here.”

Grieving also involves learning how to love and honor a special person while moving on, she said.

It’s human nature to reach out for comfort, to remove loneliness, and to find others who have also experienced loss and who understand the urge not to get out of bed that morning, Parris said.

Hospice “gives [those grieving] hope that you can move through” the grief, Parris said.

November marks National Hospice Month.

On Saturday, Nov. 19, a raft of volunteers, designers, and models will host the fundraiser “Wild Night on the Catwalk: Compassion for Fashion” runway show to benefit the local Hospice.

Although the idea for the show has been around for years, monies raised on Saturday will go toward replacing revenue lost during Tropical Storm Irene when one of BAH’s two Experienced Goods thrift stores — its flagship store in the Brattleboro Transportation Center on Flat Street — was badly damaged by flooding.

The volunteer hospice, one of fewer than 200 left in the United States, receives local funding only, and its thrift stores provide 65 percent of its revenue.

“We are dedicated to the belief that each of us can be a companion to our neighbors who are facing the challenging journey of terminal illness or grief,” wrote BAH in a recent press release.

Last year, said Parris, BAH provided 72 families with volunteer support that lasted anywhere from sitting a nighttime vigil to 10 months. It is the largest bereavement program in Vermont.

‘Like sliding on icing’

Parris estimates that BAH lost $63,000 to Irene. Despite the Transportation Center’s solid and sealed construction, Irene’s floodwaters seeped under the thrift store’s doors, spreading several inches of silt.

About 10 inches of water ruined items on the lower racks and climbed the cardboard cartons leaving “boxes filled with sopping wet wool sweaters,” remembers Parris.

A “pungent smell” wafted around Parris when she entered the darkened store. The town, who owns the building, had shut off the building’s electricity as a precaution.

The floor was “squishy and slippery” and the shop “a dark hovel,” Parris said. Someone said to Parris that moving through the shop was “like walking on icing.”

Parris, a self-described avid Experienced Goods shopper since the store opened in 1989 on Elliot Street, found the sight of the flooded store “really overwhelming.”

The store’s footprint stretches across 6,000 square feet, said Parris.

“That’s a lot of mud,” she said.

Parris applauds the store’s two managers, Karen Zamojski and Gemma Champoli, as well as a legion of volunteers and town personnel for helping Experienced Goods get back on its (dry) feet.

Soldiers at the end of the hall

According to Parris, the modern hospice movement started in the heart of a British World War II nurse, Cicely Saunders.

During the war, Saunders witnessed mortally wounded soldiers wheeled into the hospital hallways and left to die, Parris said.

According a 2005 obituary by the BBC, nurse Saunders became physician Saunders and in 1967 founded St. Christopher’s Hospice in southeast London.

Saunders once said, “You matter because you are you, and you matter to the last moment of your life.”

The modern hospice movement arrived in the United States in the 1970s, said Parris.

BAH provides non-medical, professionally led, volunteer-staffed programs and support groups to dying and grieving people and their loved ones by hospice volunteers, who receive 33 hours of training, said Parris.

Volunteers also provide bedside vigils for clients near the end of their lives when family can’t be present.

Hospice & Palliative Care Council of Vermont describes BAH as “specializing in the most extensive bereavement services available in Vermont.”

According to Parris, the BAH program differs from the more-common medical hospice protocol, which receives support from Medicare.

All hospices were volunteer when the modern hospice movement arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, she said. But as the movement gained recognition as a valuable end-of-life and bereavement program, it became intertwined with the for-profit medical establishment.

In the 1980s, Congress passed the Medicare Hospice Benefit, which allowed medical hospice programs to receive reimbursement through Medicare and insurance companies. Parris said one consequence of the reimbursements is that the social and bereavement programs within medical hospices have shrunk.

According to Parris, approximately 5,000 medical hospices exist in the country.

Parris feels that Brattleboro’s volunteer hospice allows BAH to offer free and specialized programs based on nothing more than a volunteer walking into a person’s home and asking, “What do you need?”

BAH volunteers address needs that range from walking a dog to cooking meals to holding someone’s hand during a vigil, said Parris.

Specialized programs offered by BAH include support groups for grieving parents, for those who have lost a spouse, and for friends or family of people who have committed suicide.

Another difference between a medical hospice and a volunteer hospice, said Parris, is the time frame for when people can seek support.

Medical hospice rules allow support for people with a six-month terminal prognosis and require that the patient end all active medical treatment.

BAH, however, supports anyone with a prognosis of up to two years, she said. The patient can also continue medical treatment.

Parris said some people, especially those with young families, want to “keep fighting” their disease while receiving hospice support.

“We would love to help more people,” said Parris, who encourages people who do not qualify for medical hospice but who qualify for BAH support to contact the organization.

‘No one dies alone’

Parris said humans have had rituals around death throughout human history, such as burying the dead with special objects.

The hospice movement supports individuals and loved ones because similarly, at its core, the movement believes “no one dies alone,” said Parris.

Our society has evolved with new traditions, she said, and in the “fast modern life, we’ve lost mourning” rituals. No one wears black for a year, Parris said, noting that such traditions once alerted community members to someone who was grieving.

Since “grief is not a physical wound” and not visually obvious, people in the midst of such loss can “feel like the odd person out” as everyone else rushes through their days, Parris said.

Death carries a “finality that is emotional for us,” Parris said, adding that the loss of life is often uncomfortable and the “great unknown.”

But what do most people do when they’re scared, uncomfortable, and going into a difficult situation?

“You bring a friend to share in the experience you’re having,” Parris answers.

This concept represents the importance of hospice volunteers to a dying person and loved ones, she said: Volunteers can help provide “the loving presence of another human we all want with us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #127 (Wednesday, November 16, 2011).

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