Joe Chadwick did — and still does — worry about loneliness.

Chadwick, 70, lost his wife of 50 years, Diane Marie (Theriault) Chadwick, to metastatic cancer at age 68 in January. He credits the MaineGeneral Health hospice program and volunteer group helping him to get through a challenging time.

“This isn’t about me or my wife Diane,” Chadwick said. “This is about the people who are on the front lines doing what people wouldn’t want to do, and because they had to do it.”

A group of volunteers through MaineGeneral Health’s grief support groups stayed the course throughout the coronavirus pandemic, offering support for individuals like Chadwick who experienced losses. Although traditional in-person activities and opportunities for physical visits were upended, Loretta McNeil, MaineGeneral’s supervisor of bereavement and volunteer services, organized alternatives including phone support, outdoor, socially distanced and masked meetings, and a virtual grief group program.

Loretta McNeil, supervisor of bereavement and volunteer services for hospice at MaineGeneral Health, speaks during an interview Wednesday in her office at MaineGeneral Home Care and Hospice in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Folks had been so isolated and effected, denied of the way you grieve naturally,” McNeil said. “They really couldn’t escape the emptiness of their home with memories filled with loved ones.”

The volunteer corps consists of 20 regulars who continue to offer both online and in-person opportunities like virtual memorial services and Thursday night grieving groups. The goal is to grow the regular group of volunteers. While the online-only nature of the pandemic limited human interaction, it did allow the grieving groups to reach people outside the normal territory, including offering support for someone as far north as Houlton. McNeil and her staff are continuing to monitor the latest health guidelines and anticipate offering a combination of in-person and virtual volunteer programming for the foreseeable future.

“We’re in a good position to increase our program post-COVID,” McNeil said.

Gigi Ottmann-Deeves’s experience as a hospice volunteer helped her through her own loss. Ottmann-Deeves lost her mother, Marie Therese (Terry) Ottmann, in March after a lengthy battle with dementia.

Ottmann-Deeves spent nearly three years volunteering in nursing homes as part of the MaineGeneral hospice volunteer groups. Ottmann-Deeves learned to better listen and read the expression of patients suffering from dementia, including her own mother. It was as a hospice volunteer where she helped a 104-year-old woman through her last days and built a powerful relationship near the end of a man’s life in his late 80s.

Gigi Ottmann-Deeves talks about her mother passing away during an interview Wednesday at MaineGeneral Home Care and Hospice office in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I think I just provide friendship and companionship,” Ottmann-Deeves said. “They confide in you and tell you deep, dark secrets, because you’re safe.”

One of six siblings, Ottmann-Deeves and her sister were the only two of her mother’s children who lived in Maine. Ottmann-Deeves was the closest geographically and took care of her mother for the better part of 15 years. When the pandemic hit, Ottmann-Deeves did not see her mother from March 13, 2020, until September, when her mother went to the hospital after falling.

“She had no idea who I was, and that was really painful, but I kind of prepared myself,” Ottmann-Deeves said. Suddenly, her mother’s “twinkle in her eye” came back, and the two shared a moment. All of the training that came while volunteering, including a specific “tender care” course, helped Ottmann-Deeves know what to expect during the end of life process.

At times, Ottmann-Deeves felt guilty and overwhelmed. Out of state siblings couldn’t come to visit with a 10-day mandatory quarantine. She only could see her mother when transitioning to the end of life due to pandemic restrictions. Ottmann-Deeves recalls their final moments vividly, sharing the time with a pastor and helping the hospice nurse wash her mother’s body after she died.

The final moments felt surreal, and they carried incalculable value. Feelings of closure.

“It makes me appreciate my life and my health so much more,” Ottmann-Deeves said.

Diane Chadwick was diagnosed Jan. 19 and died 10 days later. Joe Chadwick said he wasn’t sure who was a volunteer and who wasn’t, but he felt supported throughout the process.

“It’s been a really, really tough time,” he said. “If it wasn’t for hospice, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

The hospice and volunteer program assisted the Chadwicks through every step of the process. He’s considering joining the volunteer group if asked.

“I can honestly tell you from the bottom of my heart that we were so pleased with the people from hospice,” Chadwick said, rattling off about 20 names of hospice staff members. “I don’t think they could’ve had anyone any better. … They were all so nice.”

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