What Death Vigil Volunteers Do in Hospice Care

No one wants to die alone, and with dedicated hospice volunteers and death vigil programs, no one needs to. Death vigils have been held for centuries. Historically, when a person was dying, the family, friends, and clergymen would gather around the patient to offer their presence and support to the patient as well as to one another. In our modern times, patients may have little or no family members nearby to keep vigil. Another common scenario is that family and friends of a dying patient feel scared or overwhelmed when caring for a dying loved one and need support themselves.

Man in hospital bed with daughter near bedside
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What Death Vigil Volunteers Do

Death vigil volunteers provide the support and physical presence that patients and families need. The needs and desires of dying patients and their loved ones differ so volunteers will try to tailor their approach to fit each individual family's unique wants and needs. The vigil process may include any or all of the following:

  • Being a calm presence
  • Sitting with the dying person and their family
  • Talking
  • Listening
  • Shared silence
  • Healing touch
  • Reading of inspirational text or scripture
  • Requested rituals
  • Inspirational music
  • Lighting candles

Vigil volunteers may come in hours or days before death. If the vigil is long, volunteers may take shifts if the patient or family wants someone there continuously. If the vigil is fairly short, the same volunteer may stay for the duration.

What Death Vigil Volunteers Don't Do

Death vigil volunteers don't typically provide hands-on care for the patient. The day to day care needs of the patient still need to met by family members, friends, or hired caregivers. They cannot offer medical advice or administer medications. They are also typically discouraged from offering spiritual support.

Volunteers can, however, contact the appropriate hospice team member to offer additional assistance when needed. For example, the volunteer may call the case manager or on-call nurse if there are questions about symptoms and/or at the time of death. The volunteer can also contact a hospice chaplain if there are spiritual concerns.

How to Find a Death Vigil Volunteer

If you think you would like to have a death vigil volunteer lined up for yourself or your family, contact your hospice agency and ask if that is a service they provide. If that isn't a current service at your hospice agency, you can contact the Sacred Dying Foundation (SDF) and ask for available SDF-trained vigil volunteers in your area.

How to Be a Death Vigil Volunteer

Death vigil volunteers must be comfortable around death. They should have some experience of being with the dying and be able to maintain their composure in stressful situations. They should be familiar with the dying process and be able to recognize when death is imminent. They should be able to leave all of their personal situations at the patient's front door so they can be completely available for the patient and their loved ones.

If you think you have what it takes to be a death vigil volunteer, contact hospice agencies in your area and inquire about which ones offer this program. Most hospices will require their vigil volunteers to have prior ​hospice volunteer experience. If you haven't had any hospice volunteer experience, you might need to volunteer in other ways before joining the vigil team.

1 Source
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  1. Sacred Dying Foundation. What is vigiling?

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.