Holding vigil for someone as they near the end of life is a sacred space. It reminds us that in a world where we are so divided; at the end of this crazy race we call life, as a society, we are all more equal than perhaps we want to acknowledge. The house we lived in, the job we held or the car we drove have no consequence as we come to the end of our journey here. There are no first-class tickets to where we are going, we cannot wear the fancy shoes or take the designer watch with us. In fact, it is not what we take with us, but what we leave behind that becomes important.

In 2001 in Eugene, Oregon, the concept of NODA, (No one Dies Alone), was born; initiated by a Registered Nurse named Sandra Clarke who saw a need for compassionate volunteers to sit at the bedside with patients who would otherwise be alone. Today, 23 years later I am privileged to be a volunteer for NODA in our community.

On a cold January afternoon, I got a call asking if I was available to sit with a patient in our local hospital – my first shift as a NODA volunteer. I arrived at the hospital several hours later for my shift, relieving the volunteer who had come before me. As I sat holding vigil for a sweet soul laying peacefully in the hospital bed in her final hours of life, I realized in a moment of sadness that for reasons that did not matter, nor was I privy to, this person had no family or friends that were able to be with her. Our NODA community rallied and set up a rotating schedule of volunteers who would sit with her around the clock each taking three-to four-hour shifts ensuring she would not be alone on this journey.

As I held her frail, withered hand, in awe of each wrinkle and fold, I was brought into a free liberating space never experienced before in my adult life. I became starkly aware that I knew nothing about this person aside from her first name. I was sitting in a chair one hundred percent free of any judgment. As perfectly flawed human beings, we walk through life judging those we come across in our daily lives. We judge how we raise our children, each other's political views, who is vaccinated or not, how we dress, how we assert or do not assert ourselves, you name it, we judge it. It is neither good nor bad, it is just human nature to form our own opinions of those around us. To be present in a space of genuine non-judgement has been one of the most liberating, enlightening, educational moments of my life.

I study her hand enveloped in mine, each line and crease holding a story to be told. I did not judge, but I was curious. Had those hands tilled her own garden? Rocked babies to sleep? Did she knit, paint, sew? How many tears has she wiped away? What kind of work did she do? So many questions stemming from my own curiosity of the human experience.

Just yesterday we were strangers; today I have been invited to walk with her on the final leg of her journey. I knew nothing about her, while simultaneously being closer to her than I am to some people who have been in my life for years. It is my hope, as she slipped in and out of consciousness, she was aware of my presence and the compassion I have brought. I hope that a stranger holding her hand brings her comfort and a feeling of safety. Comfortable with silence, only the soft music playing in the room, I wonder if she is aware of the imposing ticking of the clock on the wall counting down her final moments. I occasionally break the silence to speak her name and remind her that she is safe where she is. When I arrived, I told her my name and that I was there to sit with her and keep her company. If I needed to step away, I reassured her I would be right back. I know she can hear me, but I keep the chatter to a minimum as to not disturb her peace. Every now and then I look up to see her with a faint smile on her face - I wonder what it is she sees, who she is thinking of, taking comfort in knowing she is feeling safe and at peace in this moment.

Eventually her breath slows until she takes her final breath; the nursing staff comes into the room to confirm she is gone. Her body lying lifeless, but peaceful. I pull the sheet up around her shoulders and tuck her in one last time, thanking her for allowing me the honor of walking with her, then slip quietly out of the hospital.

On my drive home alone in my thoughts I think of Sandra Clarke and because of her vision 23 years ago this lady did not have to die alone. Because of Sandra Clarke I have the honor of belonging to an incredible team of NODA volunteers that serve our community. I wonder if she knew at the time that her vision would touch lives across the world and what a legacy she has left in this world.

There are people who will tell you that individuals who volunteer with NODA are incredibly selfless and are providing a meaningful gift by offering companionship to those who would otherwise spend their final hours alone. Today, as I sift through my experiences as a NODA volunteer, while I do agree dedicating our time is undoubtedly a kind act and the companionship shared by NODA volunteers in our little piece of the world as we live Sandra Clarke’s vision is truly a priceless blessing. However, through my reflections I have come to realize that perhaps it is us, the volunteers, who receive the greatest gift.

Learn more about Tannis Dorscht's experiences as a NODA volunteer on the Remembering A Life Podcast: No One Dies Alone