The Mission of Hospice Vigil Volunteers: Comfort at the Very End of Life

As St. Paul resident Molly McCarthy was considering volunteer opportunities, she remembered a significant event in her own life – when her father was in hospice just before he died.

As St. Paul resident Molly McCarthy was considering volunteer opportunities, she remembered a significant event in her own life – when her father was in hospice just before he died.

“I was really touched by how incredibly giving the hospice team was,” Molly says. “Not until much later did I realize what a powerful impact they had. It had such a meaningful impact on my life and my family’s life, and I thought: what a great way to give back. I just felt compelled to reach out and try to provide something close to that experience for other people — because it was so meaningful to me.”

So Molly signed up with Ecumen Hospice-Twin Cities to become a vigil volunteer.  Molly is now on call to sit vigil with hospice patients who are in the very last stages of life. The mission of vigil volunteers is to simply be present and offer comfort — to make sure no one dies alone. 

Often vigil volunteers provide respite for family members who just need rest but want to make sure their loved one is never alone when they are so close to death.  And sometimes vigil volunteers are there for people who have no family.

When Molly gets a call that she is needed for a vigil, she also receives basic background on the patients – including their interests. She starts downloading books to read aloud.

“I am there for comfort and companionship,” Molly says. “I’m happy to read anything out loud.”  Since most people in the last stages of life are not conscious, conversation is rare.  Her last patient was interested in traveling and fishing, which happens to be two of her major interests as well.  She read from a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr she happened to be reading at the time.

When she is sitting vigil, Molly says: “I really feel privileged and really lucky to be part of this person’s life – especially at such a stage. It’s pretty powerful to think about if the positions were switched, and I was receiving hospice care. I would want my family to have some rest and not feel that I was alone.”

Molly, who is an IT systems analyst for an insurance company, says people are often curious and somewhat surprised about her hospice work.

“People that know me well — people that knew me when my dad died —are really surprised   because his death was so hard on me,” she says. “I didn’t go through that very gracefully.”

When people start asking her questions about hospice, she uses the opportunity to educate and reassure.  “I tell them it’s not something to be scared of.  It’s a gift. I enter into it in a calm state of mind, and that just helps to preserve the integrity of the moment. It has nothing to do with me.  It has everything to do with the patient and the family.”

If You’re Interested in Hospice Volunteering…

Contact Cori Ballew, Ecumen Hospice Volunteer Specialist, at 651-714-0200 or Information is also available on our website:   

For an overview of hospice volunteering, this blog post offers basic information:

Why and How To Be a Hospice Volunteer: Your Questions Answered

There are two types of hospice volunteers:

The vigil volunteer, like Molly, works an on-call, as needed schedule and go on visits when a patient is in the final few days or hours of life.  Often, they may only visit with a patient one time. Visits can be anywhere from one hour to 6+ hours (depending on the volunteer preferences and patient/family needs).  Vigil volunteers do many of the same things as companion volunteers, such as reading, singing, or simply offering company to patients as they pass. We believe that, unless desired, no one should die alone. By being available, vigil volunteers can also offer respite to caregivers, giving them peace of mind that someone is present while they are unable to be by their loved one’s side. Vigil volunteers also extend support to family members and friends that are present at the time of death.

The companion volunteer works directly with patients and families by providing essential social and emotional support to patients and their families by being there to comfort, care, and listen. During regularly scheduled visits, volunteers do activities with the patient such as reading the newspaper or books, taking walks, listening to music, sharing stories, helping make phone calls, writing letters to loved ones, or providing friendship by just being present. If a patient is living in a private home, volunteers may also offer support or respite to the caregiver or give practical help around the home, like preparing meals or running errands.