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'Paying it forward' with interest

When Barbara Lussier's twin sister was dying of cancer, Lussier and their other sister took turns to keep a vigil at her bedside. It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally.

When Barbara Lussier's twin sister was dying of cancer, Lussier and their other sister took turns to keep a vigil at her bedside.

It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally.

One comfort, though, came in the form of a regular hospice volunteer, who relieved the siblings for short periods.

This volunteer may never know what impact she had on the woman who eventually passed away, or how helpful her visits were for her siblings, but Lussier is still grateful years later, and shows her gratitude by "paying it forward."

"This woman was just a lifesaver," Lussier said. "I said at the time if I ever felt I could do it, that was what I was going to do."

Three years later, Lussier signed up for a volunteer training program through the Burnaby Hospice Society and has been visiting clients ever since, offering support at a time of life when it is perhaps needed most.

The majority of her clients have been in palliative care at Burnaby General Hospital, and she has also visited patients at St. Michael's Hospice Centre.

As well as direct client support, Lussier also facilitates a walking bereavement group at Deer Lake Park every Wednesday, and on Mondays she helps sort items at the Burnaby Hospice Society thrift store.

To mark the 25 years since the society was founded, volunteers were honoured on Friday evening with a ceremony and reception.

For Lussier, the volunteering is in itself a reward.

"You get far more back than you give," she said of the experience, which involves visiting a client's bedside to talk or help them with letter writing.

Some of them never talk about death, or mention the fact that they're dying.

For people of faith of any kind it's easier to discuss, said Lussier.

One client enjoyed talking about her garden.

Another simply needed to have Lussier there to help her get to sleep. One time, after getting a call from the hospital to request her presence, Lussier discovered her client was restless and couldn't sleep. But within 10 minutes of arriving, the woman was sound asleep and Lussier sat reading her book quietly, knowing that just being there made a difference.

Not that volunteering with terminally ill clients is always easy, she noted.

Lussier has witnessed the deaths of three people, one of whom was in great discomfort and pain until about an hour before he died.

By the end, though, each was a peaceful moment, and not scary because it is a natural process, Lussier said.

One client was a man who died of cancer at 27, who Lussier had coached in volleyball and track when he was in high school. His death, she said was something she'll never forget for its dignity.

"To see how he handled it was a lesson to everybody, because he just got where he accepted it and was more worried about how his family was than how he was," she said.

In her years of volunteering, Lussier has discovered that what a dying person wants most is just to have someone to listen to them.

"You don't walk them through it or anything; you listen, and they walk you through it," Lussier said. "And if they want to talk about it, you're there to listen to them and you validate what they feel."

Having someone around who is not a family member is often comforting for people who are dying, Lussier said, because they feel they don't have to worry about the emotional stress the way they might with family.

The time when someone dies is also tied to whether they feel their family is ready to let them go, Lussier noted.

"It's very hard for somebody that's dying if they have a family member that says, 'You can't go, you can't leave me, I won't be able to get along without you,' because they honestly feel they can't die," he said. "But if you have people that just let them know that they're going to be OK, it's a lot easier on the person that's dying."

From her own experience of losing a family member, Lussier said she knows the grief never fully goes away, but having been trained as a hospice volunteer and witnessing the process of dying several times now, she is more comfortable with the fact that all lives are finite.

"There's no such thing as closure," she said. "It's a word that just drives me nuts because there is no such thing. . You want them to be always deep within your soul. You can't shut a book. It just doesn't work that way. But you can learn a new way to live."

For more information about the Burnaby Hospice Society, visit www.