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Dorothy Ley Hospice

The Power of Laughter

Chat with Terry Cooke and you might hear two words nobody likes to use in the same sentence - death and children.  Terry is a specially trained volunteer who is assigned to caring for children of dying moms or dads, or for children who themselves are terminally ill.

"You can't step in and be the mommy.  You are not going to be the grandma," she says.  "All you can do is be a fun person.  A person the child gets to trust and talk to."

The challenge is more complex than it sounds.  Unlike most new friendships, a volunteer working with a child goes into the experience knowing it has a time limit attached.  "Somewhere down the road, you have to say goodbye," says Hospice Case Manager Clare Clovis.  "And that is very hard.  Not only are they going to lose their mom or dad or brother or sister, but now they are going to lose another caring person in their lives."

To make the situation easier for both the child and herself, Terry plans her exit strategy with the help of her case manager and the rest of The Dorothy Ley Hospice team, before meeting with a child for the first time.

"I explain to the child that I have to move on to someone else who has a mom who is really sick," she says.  "Even a three-year-old can understand that.  I tell the child how many more visits to count down until the final visit so the child can prepare himself or herself.  It is done very respectfully, very carefully, very slowly."

In between, there is play-for-play's-sake and sometimes play with a mission.  Good instincts and flexibility are key, and Terry, now an actress, draws on lifelong learning and previous experience as a primary school teacher, a registered nurse and a day care provider.

She tells of a walk in the park with a three-year-old girl, where they encountered a dead bird.  Seeing a teachable moment, Terry allowed the event to trigger discussion about death, but totally unrelated to the child's terminally ill mother.

"Those are the things that Terry is really good at and the kind of things we focus on during volunteer training," says Clare.  "Otherwise this child might never have talked about death and dying."

Terry focuses on the simple act of being a friend.  "If I can go in and help that child laugh, then I have done my job very well."


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