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Lessons Learned from Saying Goodbye
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Contributed by Deb Anderson
Over the years, I have had to say “goodbye” to so many volunteers. They said “goodbye” in different ways. Some didn’t say “goodbye,” by either circumstance or choice. I remember, as a newbie to the field, aspiring to keep a professional relationship with my volunteers. That I wouldn’t cross the imaginary ethical line that would lead our lives to intertwine. However, fate, and reality, had different plans. What I realize, looking back is that not one “goodbye” was easy.
Many of these people were skilled, directed, enthusiastic and hardworking in their service to the organizations. Many had served for a long time. A few I knew only as acquaintances but most were my friends.
There have been “goodbyes” that I initiated. In preparation to move to another organization, excitedly anticipating new challenges, new adventures, and new routines.… I was also preparing for the loss of my relationships with the volunteers I was leaving. They threw a mid-afternoon party, with gifts and cards and beautiful letters. One friend gave me an angel and told me what a blessing I had been in her life. One friend gave me a book, The Little Engine That Could. I still have that book.
Other “goodbyes” I have had to instigate were the dismissals of volunteers, whose values had clashed with those of the organizations. They were some of the hardest days. Each time I would work myself through a series of stages, questioning things like the right and responsibility of firing a volunteer, whether the offence merited such consequence, the alternatives available to me, the safety of our clients, and integrity of the organization. Not one dismissal left me feeling very good. I always focused on being professional while representing the organization in the interaction, but committed to helping the volunteer leave with dignity intact. It didn’t always work out that way. Those were hard goodbyes.
Most of the goodbyes have been out of my control, decisions made by volunteers themselves or providence. My current team of volunteers are, for the majority, retirees and seniors. Some have been serving the hospitals for longer than I’ve been alive! With age, volunteers have said goodbye because they no longer had the ability to contribute onsite. The transferred from active service, to home service: the telephone committee; the knitters; bakers; sewers; card writers; grocery tape collectors … and then on to permanent retirement from volunteering. Many of these good souls continue to be Life Members of the Auxiliary. Others have passed away.
During my time at AIDS Niagara we lost so many of our volunteers and supporters from the ravaging affects of the virus. We watched so many people fade away and we attended so many funerals. I will never forget my breaking point during a most amazing session about dealing with grief. I started counting the people we had lost and I started crying. The facilitator, a tremendously gifted lady, came to my side and helped me to let out all the sorrow, anger, confusion and frustration. I attended grief counselling once every other week for a year after that conference.
Myrle, one of my favourite volunteers ever (I know we’re not supposed to have favourites, but I couldn’t help it), was one of the most amazing people I am likely to meet in my life. She worked her last shift in Palliative Care on Tuesday. After being home from the hospital for only a few hours, she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and never regained consciousness. My only regret about Myrle was that I didn’t ask to speak at her funeral service. I have stories that would have helped every person in the audience know that at 78 years old she was an amazing, beautiful, spirited, hilarious, loving woman who never had children and dedicated her life to her mother, father and sisters, husband, friends, neighbours and strangers alike in service to God. Myrle taught me things that I am so thankful to know. I will always carry her wisdom and friendship in my heart.
A few volunteers have left very upset and vocal about their feelings. Of them, I was more than happy to see two move on to a new stage in life. For different reasons, they were not able to meet the needs of the organization and we were not able to meet their needs. In both cases, the volunteers were long-serving and had come to think of their relationship with the organization as one in which the primary area of focus should be on them as individuals. I contemplated whether dismissing them, or having them choose to leave, would cause less damage for the organization. In these situations, I was disappointed that our relationships could not end amicably, with respect and best wishes for success in the future.
Some volunteers have left without saying goodbye. For whatever reason, they walked away without letting me know why. Although these were quiet affairs, they were difficult. My attempts to make contact, and find answers to all the whys, were mostly unsuccessful. In these goodbyes, I was left to my own imagination to concoct what could have motivated such a silent departure -- an unsettling feeling at best.
Some left because their commitment was over. Sometimes their intentions had never been to stay long or get very comfortable. They wanted to help the community but needed to do it on their terms, with timeframes that worked with their lives. Some were part of committees or work groups that had a pre-determined end in sight. Others moved on to new challenges and experiences. In the beginning of my career, I found myself to be a bit resentful of these people. I had worked so hard to get them involved and support their efforts, and they had demonstrated an ability to contribute in a positive manner. I wondered what we could have done differently to turn them into “lifers.” Then, at a workshop, I learned exactly how to ask them instead of wondering about it. From this, maybe more than any other part of my job, I have learned so many valuable and growth inspiring lessons. They have shared with me what motivates people to give and share to make their communities better places. I always knew my own reasons for volunteering and for choosing to leave a position. What I didn’t know is that there are as many reasons as there are volunteers. I am thankful to each for teaching me such important information.
Every goodbye was different. Each had a different impact on me and I was often surprised by how I felt at the time. Today it is a priority for me to cherish each goodbye and the lessons they bring. It is one of the best ways to be thankful for time each volunteer contributed to our organizations. It is a wonderful way to learn how to make volunteering more rewarding, challenging, comfortable, flexible, meaningful and important in the lives of my volunteers.
Editor’s note: Discuss goodbyes that affected you on VOLUNTEER-ISSUES.
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