The purpose of Compassion in Action (CIA) is to raise society's consciousness about the needs of the terminally ill and their caregivers. It was founded in 1997 by four dedicated individuals, and is committed to the belief that no one need die alone. Former U.S. Marine Dannion Brinkley is the chairman of CIA and has been instrumental, through programs based at 12 Veteran Affairs (VA) campuses, in focusing the organization's efforts towards serving veterans throughout the United States.
CIA's 4,000 volunteers, called the Twilight Brigade, visit the terminally ill in their homes, at hospice facilities, and at VA Medical Centers. These services are offered at the request of the patient who is dying, and the volunteers are advocates on behalf of the patient's particular needs.
Training the Volunteer
CIA's education program includes 20 hours of training, presented by certified Compassion in Action trainers. The weekend intensive training is designed to teach people how to provide support to the terminally ill and their family members. As the CIA brochure explains, the intensive is appropriate for lay volunteers as well as medical and mental health professionals.
There are three vital areas of focus:
Some of the skills that are taught in the training program include active listening and the judicious use of silence, and learning to interface with family members while avoiding being pulled into the family dynamics. Potential volunteers learn how to speak to patients and their families without imposing their own beliefs and values. They also learn how to work with an interdisciplinary team that includes a chaplain, social worker, or psychologist. Guest lecturers in the training program include hospice volunteer coordinators, chaplains, nurses and physicians, and on occasion patients and their families.
- Learning what to do and how to be with the dying;
- Addressing personal fears and unresolved issues that prevent trainees from serving; and
- Developing techniques for self care and avoiding burnout in order to continue serving this very special population.
Highlights of the 20-hour Training Program
Volunteers confront their own fears of death
The 20-hour intensive helps the volunteer-in-training come to terms with death through a series of personal death-awareness exercises.
In one exercise, the volunteers are given 21 cards on which they are asked to write down the things that are most important to them. Then they have to give up one card at a time, as they take a mental journey through the stages of losing control of their life, imagining that they are going through the dying process.
Marti Coblentz, who is both a trainer and hospice volunteer, said that she learned a great deal about herself when she discovered that the last thing she wanted to give up was music. ''I'm a trainer now, and have done this many times, but still I am always surprised by what people write on their last card.''
Breathing exercises to calm a dying patient
In another exercise, developed by Dannion Brinkley, the volunteer learns to follow the breath of patients by breathing in with them and out with them. After the synchronized pattern has been established, the volunteer can begin to help the patient relax by changing the breathing pattern. The patient's rapid and shallow breaths, for instance, will be influenced by the slower and deeper breaths of the volunteer, and this new rhythm will help the patient release stress.
Asking the right questions
Volunteers-in-training also learn how to help patients talk about themselves, by asking questions about their life, such as Where did you go to school? Where were you raised? How many siblings do you have? How many times did you move? What were your proudest moments? This type of dialogue prepares the patient for a panoramic life-review.
Although the volunteers are asked not to discuss particular spiritual practices or beliefs, there are times when a patient will initiate that kind of dialogue. Marti explains that if they ask you what will happen when they die, that's an opening to talk about the panoramic life-review. ''Doing a life-review makes the progression into spirit go more smoothly. The actual death takes place sooner because fear is removed. The patient relaxes and stress is diminished. The passing is almost pleasant, and the patient often has a beautiful and serene look.'' (A detailed discussion of the panoramic life-review can be found in Dannion Brinkley's Saved by the Light.)
Hospice Work Attracts People From All Walks of Life
Those who complete training for CIA never think about life again in the same way. This powerful and effective training program enables people from all walks of life to offer comfort and understanding to the terminally ill.
One woman, who works as a travel agent, said that she decided to become a volunteer after visiting her 96-year-old grandmother in Europe, who was very sick and approaching death. The young woman realized that her grandmother was terrified of dying, and read her chapters of Dannion Brinkley's Saved by the Light. The book had a calming affect on the grandmother, and the young woman realized that so many more people could be helped if they realized that death was nothing to be feared.
CIA trainer Marti Coblentz, who works in the administrative office of the Ohio Historical Society, remarked that she's amazed at how many people in the medical professions take these trainings. ''There are nurses, social workers, and doctors in the weekend intensive. There's a gray area where a whole generation of medical people have had very little training in death.''
Some people are attracted to hospice work because they have had a near-death experience (NDE). Dove Rule, who has been doing different kinds of volunteer work since junior high school, has had three NDE's. Like many others who have had NDE's, she found that her life was transformed after these experiences. Her priorities shifted from concerns of getting ahead to wanting to serve people. ''You get close to spirit and find out that there's a lot more to life then just making a dollar, climbing the ladder, getting the best clothes and education for your kids, and diamond rings and manicured nails for yourself. If you spend all your time doing these things, you won't have time to help other people.
''We're all here together to have a spiritual experience, in an earthly body. You learn from the near-death experience that we are here to grow and to learn how to love.''
Transformative Experiences While Assisting the Dying
Hospice volunteers have extraordinary stories to tell about miraculous moments in the final days of life of the terminally ill.
Marti had one terminally-ill patient who had given up a child to adoption shortly after its birth. It so happened that the daughter had recently tried to contact her birth-mother and wanted to meet with her. Although the old woman did not want her daughter to see her in the condition that she was in, Marti was able to help her understand how important it was for the two to meet. The reunion was powerful, and the birth-mother and daughter discovered that they had lived only 30 miles from each other. Soon after that first meeting, the daughter introduced her birth-mother to the family that had adopted her, and it was a joyful experience for all. Marti explains that she was deeply moved by the love that developed between the birth-mother and daughter.
Dove tells the story of a hospice client, who was given a week to live. He often asked Dove why she would want to visit him in the hospital when she could be outside in the sunlight enjoying the beauty of nature. She felt that he was a remarkable man who had won the hearts of all the volunteers because of the stories he told about his life, which included accounts of his experiences in WW II. ''They had given him one week and he lived nine months. He didn't know why he lived so long, he barely had enough skin to cover his body. The day before he died, we stood around his bed, and this gentleman requested prayers. We gave him a memorial service while he was still alive, and it was standing-room-only. We used battery-operated candles, and we sang songs and said prayers for him. Then he held one of the candles and said, 'I will never ask again why I have lived these extra months!' '' The love that this man gave and received during those last nine months transformed everyone that came in contact with him. After the memorial service, Dove said, she saw his spirit lift. ''It was a shadowy white-light body-image that lifted up out of him. I knew it was the end.''
Tom Bodnar describes a time when he took his sister with him to visit a woman in the last stages of Alzheimer's disease. Although the woman had long ago lost the ability to speak, she was able to join them in singing a spiritual! Tom and his sister were astonished when she sang ''Jesus Loves Me'' and articulated every word in the song. ''You have amazing moments in hospice work,'' Tom comments. ''I've seen a lot of miracles.''
Group Support for Hospice Volunteers
Volunteers become a close-knit group and are encouraged to participate in group meetings to offer support to each other. These are held every month and volunteers discuss the range of feelings that they have in dealing with a terminally-ill patient, or with the death of someone that they have become close to. Volunteers learn how to nourish themselves and they know how to recognize signs of burnout. They are encouraged to take time off when it is needed.
Understanding the Purpose of Life Through Hospice Work
Those who become Compassion in Action volunteers soon discover that in helping the terminally ill they are also learning everything they need to know about how to live. The benefits of participating in the CIA program go beyond caring for the dying, by also helping volunteers to become more effective in their daily lives. ''When I'm having a bad day,'' says Tom Bondar, ''I run to do my hospice work, because I can shift my focus off of myself and my own problems. Hospice work keeps me in balance. You learn what's important in life.''
''I do hospice work so that no one need die alone and so that those nearing the end of their lives need not be afraid,'' explains Petra Cox.
''Compassion in Action training and hospice work is valuable for people in all walks of life,'' comments Sharon Micheletti, ''because there comes a time when someone close to us nears death, and it's important to understand the dying process.''
Understanding the dying process helps us structure and prioritize our lives and helps us gain a better perspective on the meaning and purpose of our existence. When we understand death, we learn how to live.
Dannion Brinkley says, ''If people would pay more attention to each other, to care for and to have faith and hope in each other, then we could also begin to believe and have faith in the true nature of God's love not God in the religious sense, but God in a spiritual sense. Through love all things are truly possible.''
Becoming a Compassion in Action Volunteer
- National headquarters and program offices are located in Los Angeles, CA.
- Chapter offices: Sacramento, CA; Chicago, IL; Seattle, WA; and Spokane, WA.
- Additional chapter sites are under development in Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Baltimore, MD; Columbus, OH; Hartford, CT; Phoenix, AZ; Portland, OR; San Diego, CA; and San Francisco, CA.
- Compassion in Action, The Twilight Brigade, P.O. Box 84013, Los Angeles, CA 90073. Phone 310-473-1941; fax 310-473-1951; website TwilightBrigade.com; email CIANatl@aol.com.
- Dannion Brinkley's website is currently being constructed at dannion.com.
Top of Page