When you’re unwell, you want some sense of normality: 5 things I’ve learned working with people who are living with a terminal illness

As the Marie Curie Helper service in Liverpool turns five this year, service manager Christine O’Sullivan reflects on the five things she has learned – from the people living with a terminal illness the service supports to the volunteers who give their time to help them.

Helper volunteers offer a few hours of their time each week to provide people they support with companionship, doing things like looking at old photo albums and listening to people's personal stories.

It can feel quite lonely when you’re living with an illness.

“My dad used to say that the best thing you can give to anyone is your time.

We see lots of people who are socially isolated. They may have lovely families but they’re not always on the doorstep.

Our Helper volunteers have the luxury of being able to offer a few hours of their time each week, providing that bit of company so people can have a cuppa and a chat with someone they know they can trust.”

Support from someone outside the family can be helpful.

“Our Helper volunteers often provide an important confidential outlet for people to share their inner thoughts and feelings, especially when they can’t open up to family and friends for fear of worrying or upsetting them.

To have someone who’s impartial, someone people can talk to about anything, and not just about their illness, can be a huge benefit. And our volunteers are there just as much for the person’s family members too.”

When you’re unwell, you want some sense of normality.

“Recently, a gentleman told me: ‘What I like about your service is that you don’t see me as a bag of symptoms’.   

Our volunteers tell us how they take people out on trips to their local park or shops, look through old photo albums, sing together and even debate politics.

They might chat about how dramatic ‘Coronation Street’ was last week or how well Everton played at the weekend – just normal stuff.”

Most people have more in common than you think they do.

“We always try to find the right match between the Helper volunteer and the person they’ll be supporting. I’ve often found that, just when you don’t expect it, two people who may not appear to have much in common have plenty to share once they get to know each other.

I remember vividly our 20-year-old volunteer Chelsea. She was like a breath of fresh air to Ena, an elderly widow she supported. Chelsea took her out each week to do things she hadn’t done in years – like going to McDonald’s! They got on so well despite their age difference.” 

Small things can make a big difference.

“I’ve learned that even small things can count a lot and we can all make a positive difference to someone’s life if we reach out to others, give them a bit of our time, and help them in little but meaningful ways.

Being part of this service, I’ve experienced many heart-warming and inspiring moments working with wonderful volunteers and seeing so many people facing their illness with such courage and dignity.”

Find out more about the Marie Curie Helper service. 

Christine went trekking in Sri Lanka to raise money for the Marie Curie Hospice, Liverpool.