A Note From Kat Steigerwald, Fairhaven Class of 2004
December 10, 2009
I am finally graduating! There is actually snow on the ground here in Prescott today, which makes me think of Maryland. Please find my senior project enclosed. It recounts some of my experiences volunteering for hospice this semester- an amazing experience. I also have the honor of presenting my project at Baccalaureate this weekend. Prescott College graduation is a lot like Fairhaven- each student picks a mentor to speak about them, then the student has a minute to cry (or do whatever!)
Thank you all so much for being part of my journey. I know that I wouldn’t have found such an amazing college if my time at Fairhaven hadn’t empowered me to take responsibility for my education. Now I just need to find a grad school…
With Kat’s permission, below are some passages from her senior project, a booklet entitled Reflections On Being With Dying.
For this study I added an additional two days of hospice volunteering per week, in addition to the one day I have been doing at a care home for over a year. These two days took place in The Hospice Family Care inpatient unit, which houses patients who are in need of symptom and pain management, respite care, or who are actively dying. I also researched the psychological and emotional processes of death, dying, and bereavement to inform me of what I should expect to witness while volunteering. Part of my project also involved a more personal exploration of death that included doing meditations and practices to become mindful of my life and the inevitable end to it.
Another reason why I chose to spend time with people who are dying is that death is a completely universal experience. As a future therapist I could choose to specialize in addictions, multicultural perspectives, or adolescence (to name a few), but emotional issues surrounding death is one of the few things that I can connect to everyone about….I am able to relate to hospice patients whose lifestyles are completely different from mine, because all of the differences fall away when we get down to the business of life and death.
(from “Facing Facts”)
Days have a way of passing and leading into the next so fluidly that it is not unusual to wake up one morning and wonder “how the heck did I get here?’ Finding meaning in life requires being intentional about how we spend those days. I agree with [psychiatrist and author] Viktor Frankl that participating in life creatively, experiencing the parts of life we believe to be of true value, and the attitude we take toward our limited time in this world will lead to a meaningful existence.
I remember seeing one particular patient, Wendy, who was very confused and quiet. In the beginning of my visit I found myself chitchatting quite a bit, and only getting brief, indifferent answers from her. Once I realized how much I had been leading the conversation I quiteted down and let her get lost in her own thoughts for a while…During her stories she spoke very slowly, only a few words at a time. “You don’t notice getting older,” she began slowly, “and then one day you are…” After an extended pause she concluded, “and surrounded by elderly people.” This insight was very sweet, and certainly worth the wait.
It is a cold and cloudy day today, and although this project must now come to an official end I know that death and dying are subjects that I will continue to explore until my theoretical death becomes a reality. Reflecting on the questions and ideas that have arisen for me this semester has helped me clarify how my relationship with death can make me a better counselor, volunteer, and friend. I will continue to foster gratitude, compassion, intention, a search for meaning, and the ability to sit with suffering in my life. And, knowing that there may not be a tomorrow, I am now going to throw on a coat, strap on some boots, go for a walk, and seize the day.
Thanks, Kat for sharing your project with us. And Congratulations!