Open letter: I used to volunteer in a hospice and now I'm living my last days in one

As part of an ongoing series, Yahoo Canada is profiling personal experiences in open letters. To read more like this, click here.

As told to Tiffany Pope

My name is Jitka Malec and I am living the last days of my life at St. Joseph’s Hospice in London, Ontario. 

As it happens, I used to be a volunteer at this same hospice for almost 20 years—offering Therapeutic Touch, Reiki and Reflexology. I’m also a former registered nurse. I was trained to care for people and somehow that role of caregiver gets into your blood and stays there forever. 

Several months ago I became ill and suddenly found myself in a different role. Now in the time I have left, I’m learning a valuable lesson: Can I learn to be both giver and receiver of care? 

One of the staff was telling me what I said at the moment of my admission: “I am here to continue living until I die.” And she was quite taken by this statement. Here I was pondering from the very first moment: What does this experience mean? Surely something good must come out of it and there’s something I need to learn. 

The conclusion I made was that I need to learn how to receive care. Up until now, I was always in the role of caregiver. The staff and volunteers are now my teachers and I’m the student. I’m learning how to say what my needs are, and I’m learning to receive their help with gratitude and new insights into their unique work. I need to learn how to humbly accept and trust my vulnerability, which at times can be very difficult for me. Yes, my ravaged unhealthy body is one aspect of my personhood, but I will not lose the core of who I am because of what my body goes through. 

Here, the focus is on healing. And that doesn’t mean being cured of my illness. I might be healed and die. You can still be weak, vulnerable and not necessarily fulfilled all the time, but you can take strength from within to live that part of your life reasonably content and happy, accepting the ultimate departure from this physical realm as inevitable, and trusting you will be part of the flow of life. 

There are few places like a hospice where that chance to take care of final business comes through. To have that time relatively free of stress when you can look back and reevaluate life, see what needs to be done in order to accept death, and to leave in peace knowing that the connections with the family have been made, issues were talked through, and that the family perhaps came closer than ever before, is so important. 

For my family, after the initial shock of me having to come here, they started appreciating the time we have left together, and enjoyed coming for visits. They are adjusting, but they’re also learning there is a lot of life in dying. Even in this situation, there is so much one can live for and live through. 

Thinking about my own death, I might have my own plans, but they’re not necessarily plans that will transpire. The future is completely unknown. I think I have some kind of idea about how it’s going to be to die, but I really don’t know. Perhaps I’ll discover things about myself I don’t know. Maybe my beliefs will be greatly challenged or I’ll discover certain weaknesses in me, and I’ll have to ask myself: Will I be able to stick to who I am? Am I going to remain an entity—a soul, spirit, or something else? Am I going to perish forever? These are daunting questions. In a way, it’s a great adventure. It’s another great lesson, with the end unknown. 

I continue to learn how to live the last chapter of my life here at the hospice. Some days are more difficult than others. My hope is that whatever happens to me will be peaceful, uplifting and beautiful for my family and loved ones, and that it will be a learning experience for all of us.