'If It's All About You, There's No Reward:' Coping with Grief by Helping Others

Feb 6, 2017

For many Americans, the pay-off to a life of hard work is retirement, which historically has started at around age 65.  But as our population lives longer, those retirement years can now span decades.

Looking to fill their leisure time, some retirees turn to volunteering.  In Saco, one 80-something military veteran  has found a new purpose by providing companionship to other vets, even while the pain of his own loss lingers.  

Among the best decisions Floyd Hastings has made over the course of his 85 years are:  Marrying his wife Rachel.  Having two great kids.  And, more recently, visiting fellow veterans, like Charlie Busch.

Or, as Hastings puts it, "bothering" him. "I tell him that's my job, you know?  Yeah.  Right, Charlie?  Yup, that is my job.  To come and bother him once a week."

Charlie Busch lives at Southridge Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford. He has advanced Parkinson's disease, and uses a wheelchair. His head and neck stoop down toward his chest.

"He is 86, just one year older than I am," Hastings says. That’s what makes me count my blessings."

Busch speaks in a soft voice that's hard to understand, but Hastings has found other ways to connect on his weekly visits.  He sits on Busch's bed, directly opposite him, pulls out a clipboard with a stack of papers, and leans forward.

"Hey Charlie?  I’m going to read you my latest poem.  How’s that?  Think you can stand it?  Here’s what I wrote.  I entitled it, 'Fight They Must, While the Angels Cry.' "

For most of his life, Hastings was too busy to volunteer, between military service and a career on the road as manager of a discount chain store.  He retired in 1995.  

Four years later, his wife Rachel got sick.  She was admitted to Maine Medical Center's Special Care Unit. It was pancreatic cancer, and within a month, she was gone.

As he grieved his wife, Hastings wanted to give back to the people who cared for her, so he became a volunteer on the unit, checking in families.  He says it allowed him to shine a bright spot, however briefly, on their day.

"One lady said to me, 'Thank you for smiling.'  And I thought, My God, imagine it.  For smiling?' "

A couple years ago, Hastings heard about the Vet to Vet volunteer program, run through the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.  It trains veterans to provide companionship to other former service men and women. Hastings visited one man for nine months.  After that man died, Hastings started spending time with Charlie Busch.

"So many people need help, you know, and these veterans, oh my goodness," he says. "I say to them, 'I want someone who is the most disabled person.' Because I don’t want someone who doesn’t need me – I don't want to help someone whose wife lives with them and they want to go out for coffee and they want to talk.  No.  I want someone who really needs someone who will be a comfort, and who will help them in whatever way they can."

"Now, do you feel like going outside today?" Hastings asks Busch.  "Yeah," he replies softly.

It's a sunny autumn day, so Hastings puts a cap on Busch's head, and wheels him outside. "Good ol' sunshine, eh Charlie?  Give you a little tan."

After wheeling him around the grounds, Hastings parks Busch under a canopy and reads a few more poems. As Hastings reads, a smile usually spreads across Busch’s face.  

"This one, Charlie here, believe it or not, I wrote my senior year in high school," he says. "That was 1949.  'As I walked among the crosses, in a land once torn by war...' "

Hastings' volunteering doesn’t end here. He visits veterans with dementia at a nearby adult day center.  He gives a former neighbor rides to medical appointments.  He also works -  part time at an antiques store.  Hastings can't imagine just sitting at home.

"If it's all about you, there's no reward," he says. "There's no good feeling inside, as far as I'm concerned, if it's about yourself."

Charlie mumbles.  "You want to go over there?" Hastings asks. "You do?  OK."

Busch motions that he wants Hastings to wheel him around some more. "Boy, you’re going to tire me out, Charlie!  I'm not as young as I used to be."

Hastings seems eternally cheerful. But that good feeling inside that he gets from volunteering - he needs that, ever since his wife passed away.  

"You can't know what it's like, if you haven't lost someone like that - that was your soul mate," he says. "For me...I haven’t been happy for 16 years.  No, I’m not happy, basically, you see.  I have times of happiness."

Those times of happiness come when he's with family, and on his weekly visits with Charlie Busch. After soaking up the sunshine, Hastings wheels Busch back to his room.

"Well I bothered you quite a lot today. It makes me feel good to be able to bother you," he laughs. "I get a little grin out of him now and then."

Life without his Rachel  has never been the same, says Hastings. "But you - you go on, and get what you can out of life -  And I've gotten a lot."

"OK, Charlie," he says to Busch. "I'll be back next week to bother you."

“In This Life” is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.