It’s Harder Than I Thought It Would Be

 

When it was time to re-start my volunteer efforts with hospice, I decided it was premature to be exposed to patients and their families. So, I asked my supervisor if she had other work I could do in the meantime; I still wanted to make a contribution, even if I wouldn’t be visiting patients. She suggested I could make bereavement calls to those who had lost members of their families. It seemed like a great idea.

Only it’s harder than I thought it would be.

People have a hard enough time speaking about death in almost any context, but discussing the recent loss of a loved one can be downright painful. Of course, people can choose not to talk with me. I just want to speak with them for a few minutes to see how they are doing. (We especially want to learn if anyone is indicating they are suicidal.) We only ask a handful of questions; the rest of our interview form asks us to document actions they are taking (or not taking) to deal with their loss and begin to move forward in their lives. And we end the call asking if they would like to speak to a bereavement counselor.

The least demanding calls (which really aren’t calls) are those where I don’t reach anyone! Actually, I leave a voice mail with my condolences, and offer their scheduling a visit with a bereavement counselor with a phone number, if the person is interested.

Then there are the calls where people, almost always women, are willing to share a little. They seem to get comfort from talking, and from realizing that we are genuinely taking an interest in their wellbeing.

Talking to those who are coping but suffering is a moving experience; since I’m just starting out in this task, trying to sound relatively competent and caring, my heart tends to be wide open. Even though the calls are often brief, their suffering comes through, and I have to remind myself that just words of comfort and resources to help them are the most I can do.

I can’t make their suffering go away.

Finally, believe it or not, the most difficult calls I make are those where I talk to men who have lost a mother or father. Even if you have had a strained relationship with a parent, the loss can leave a hole in your life. These men tend to be brusque, unwilling to disclose their pain to a stranger. That reaction makes perfect sense, and I wish I could help them through their discomfort. But at least they know, however intrusive and difficult my call might seem to be, someone is thinking of them and wants to help.

*     *     *     *

Yesterday was my first set of calls, and I still have a stack of calls to make. I just hope that my reaching out is comforting to most of them, and is a tiny balm in their time of grief and loss. I hope as I continue to make calls that I can stay present and open, and remind myself of my role and limitations; it’s not about me.

I hope that I am helping.

[Photo courtesty of inscape.com]

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  1. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    I am full of admiration. I do not know how you do it, but it is truly holy work. May you be blessed.

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    iWe (View Comment):

    I am full of admiration. I do not know how you do it, but it is truly holy work. May you be blessed.

    I don’t know how I do it either, @iwe. Thank you.

    And I’m not interested in doing something easier; doing office work is just not my bag. And too many others are suited for that kind of work, not for what I’m doing.

    • #2
  3. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    iWe (View Comment):

    I am full of admiration. I do not know how you do it, but it is truly holy work. May you be blessed.

    I agree. I struggle mightily with how to deal with grief. I have no idea how to respond without safe and pre-canned responses.

    • #3
  4. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Your work reminds me of the dilemma I always feel when I hear of someone’s death and need to convey condolences to their survivor(s). The standard phrases seem trite and inadequate. But more meaningful messages require keen insight into the individual and their circumstance — both between them and the lost loved one, and what they are feeling in the aftermath of death. It is too easy (and painful) to stray into the wrong words that make things worse rather than better. I am quite sensitive to that potential. And so it is that we come to embrace the trite because it is safe. And at least your are observing the forms accepted by society as proper. But your job requires you to move into dangerous territory precisely because it is only their that meaningful comfort can be offered. It is what we should all do but can’t, because it takes knowledge and skill to see what for this individual and in this unique circumstance will most comfort them.

    • #4
  5. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    People have heard about the uniform team the military sends to notify people of a death. What they don’t know is one member is a random officer picked to lead the team. Chaplains and counselors deal with this as part of their jobs but the unlucky random officer selected does not. Few have to ever do this important duty but it is something you will never forget doing if you must do it. I am sure law enforcement people live with the same burden. I never had to do it but I know someone who did. Deeply moving. Also, it is a helpless feeling when one can’t relieve the grief. Yet this is a so much better way than the World War II telegram.

    • #5
  6. Captain French Moderator
    Captain French
    @AlFrench

    EHerring (View Comment):

    People have heard about the uniform team the military sends to notify people of a death. What they don’t know is one member is a random officer picked to lead the team. Chaplains and counselors deal with this as part of their jobs but the unlucky random officer selected does not. Few have to ever do this important duty but it is something you will never forget doing if you must do it. I am sure law enforcement people live with the same burden. I never had to do it but I know someone who did. Deeply moving. Also, it is a helpless feeling when one can’t relieve the grief. Yet this is a so much better way than the World War II telegram.

    I had to do a few death notifications as an LEO. One of the most difficult tasks of the job.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m no expert on the “right things” to say, but I don’t think that “trite” even falls into the equation. We don’t have to be unique; we only have to be heartfelt. We don’t have to be clever; we only need to be empathic. Occasionally I hear of really stupid comments, like saying to a woman who loses a baby, “Well, you’re young enough to try again,” or saying to a person whose spouse died a long death, “Well, at least he’s not suffering anymore”; if anyone is allowed to say this, it’s the spouse, not us.

    The last thing I say before I hang up the phone is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It may sound trite to me, but it rarely does to the receiver of the sentiment. We shouldn’t say, “Oh I know just how you feel.” [cringe] I guarantee you can’t possibly know.

    I also work off what they tell me: “I can tell you really miss her.” Or ” It makes sense that you’re feeling lonely.” Or “The house must be really quiet without your conversations.” All of these build on what the person has shared. 

    Just listen; then speak.

    • #7
  8. WiesbadenJake Coolidge
    WiesbadenJake
    @WiesbadenJake

    Susan, thank you for what you are doing. I have a good friend who volunteers for Hospice–he has nothing but positive things to say about his experience.

    When I was overseas working in a regional military hospital we often had dying patients who, at best, had immediate family present but often hours away from their family’s base of support. I was privileged to work with RNs who knew how to relate to relate in positive ways to those experiencing the darkest of times–we were, in a sense, the functional hospice for these patients and families since there was no formal hospice system in place.

    I learned to differentiate between bravery and courage, at least operationally, in my interaction with the dying and their families.

    I tell my students at those too frequent times they have a fellow student or fellow student’s family member who has died to say less rather than more at the funeral home visitation. I advise them that if what they say is remembered, it is usually because it was a wrongheaded statement. I advise them to not address the whys of death; just say you are sorry and be present. The family will remember you were there. I think it is good that you ask the grieving questions; you invite them, by their replies, to guide the conversation. Presence means everything–in a sense, your follow-up phone calls are a reminder to the families that Hospice is still there for them.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    WiesbadenJake (View Comment):

    Susan, thank you for what you are doing. I have a good friend who volunteers for Hospice–he has nothing but positive things to say about his experience.

    When I was overseas working in a regional military hospital we often had dying patients who, at best, had immediate family present but often hours away from their family’s base of support. I was privileged to work with RNs who knew how to relate to relate in positive ways to those experiencing the darkest of times–we were, in a sense, the functional hospice for these patients and families since there was no formal hospice system in place.

    I learned to differentiate between bravery and courage, at least operationally, in my interaction with the dying and their families.

    I tell my students at those too frequent times they have a fellow student or fellow student’s family member who has died to say less rather than more at the funeral home visitation. I advise them that if what they say is remembered, it is usually because it was a wrongheaded statement. I advise them to not address the whys of death; just say you are sorry and be present. The family will remember you were there. I think it is good that you ask the grieving questions; you invite them them, by their replies, to guide the conversation. Presence means everything–in a sense, your follow-up phone calls are a reminder to the families that Hospice is still there for them.

     

    What a beautiful description of how we can be present to people when they are grieving. Yes, Jake, you’re right. In almost every case, less is more. Thank you.

    • #9
  10. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I am pretty useless in these kinds of situations.  When I have lost family members, I hated the obligatory flow of ‘sorry for your loss’ and ‘anything I can do’ statements so I hate doing that to others.

    When I lost a grandmother over 50 years ago, my grandfather just told stories about their youth at the wake and post-funeral.  Some stories were funny.  He was never reluctant to take center stage in his favorite role as racquenteur but that was much better than a bunch of people just milling around and mumbling sadly.  It seems better to focus on what connected us to the deceased and celebrate that and regret only lost opportunities for more of that so that going forward we live more fully.  So how do I encapsulate that to go with a hug or a handshake instead of the traditional pablum?

    • #10
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Are you sure that the statements were inept, or could it have been something else? I don’t know about you, but you might react negatively because you doubt their sincerity; they come across as offering throw-away lines. When people are sincere, I believe there’ a difference.

    OB, I hope you don’t mind my saying this, too, but sometimes we are angry about the losses we are suffering, and we want to shift our anger onto others. So anything that a person says we might take as an insult or insincere. What makes them think that their words can take away your pain or reduce your sense of loss, or when you really do need help, will that person be there? In these situations, our reactions are more about our own pain than what has been said.

    No one can really make you feel better when you’ve suffered a loss. Unless they’re just showing up for the food, I like to assume they are trying to offer comfort. At a shiva, people should come in and just sit quietly with the bereaved, and if they speak, we can respond. Sometimes silence offers the best healing.

    • #11
  12. WiesbadenJake Coolidge
    WiesbadenJake
    @WiesbadenJake

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I am pretty useless in these kinds of situations. When I have lost family members, I hated the obligatory flow of ‘sorry for your loss’ and ‘anything I can do’ statements so I hate doing that to others.

    When I lost a grandmother over 50 years ago, my grandfather just told stories about their youth at the wake and post-funeral. Some stories were funny. He was never reluctant to take center stage in his favorite role as racquenteur but that was much better than a bunch of people just milling around and mumbling sadly. It seems better to focus on what connected us to the deceased and celebrate that and regret only lost opportunities for more of that so that going forward we live more fully. So how do I encapsulate that to go with a hug or a handshake instead of the traditional pablum?

    Hug or a handshake is probably more than adequate–it is your presence that matters. I had a friend who lost a baby to SIDS; she told me about some of the comments made to her at the funeral home–the only comments she remembered were the inappropriate comments, the hurtful comments. So presence and simplicity. I think writing notes about experiences with the loved one can be very helpful; it can be reread as the season of grief progresses. 

    • #12
  13. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Captain French (View Comment):

    EHerring (View Comment):

    People have heard about the uniform team the military sends to notify people of a death. What they don’t know is one member is a random officer picked to lead the team. Chaplains and counselors deal with this as part of their jobs but the unlucky random officer selected does not. Few have to ever do this important duty but it is something you will never forget doing if you must do it. I am sure law enforcement people live with the same burden. I never had to do it but I know someone who did. Deeply moving. Also, it is a helpless feeling when one can’t relieve the grief. Yet this is a so much better way than the World War II telegram.

    I had to do a few death notifications as an LEO. One of the most difficult tasks of the job.

    It is indeed. In many cases the LEO notification involves the sudden unexpected death of a loved one.

    • #13
  14. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Susan, I believe your willingness to do this for the grieving makes you qualified for the job. It shows your sincere concern for others. 

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m so glad to be wrong! Today the men I reached were willing to talk with me; one struggled through tears. The others were willing to answer my few questions and I appreciated their filling me in. So I should never make assumptions!

    • #15
  16. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    I honor your efforts.  My experience has been mostly on the other side.  After my mother died, my father went downhill pretty quickly.  He was in a retirement home that took pretty good care of him, but my brothers and I decided that a hospice might be a better fit.  We had a person from the hospice come and explain the options.  After she went in to talk to our father, she came back out of his room and basically said that he would probably not survive the weekend.  At the time, it seemed pretty brutal, but she was right and I was glad that we were prepared.

    My older brother Frank died of a blood cancer and was in and out of the cancer ward for what ended up as experimental treatment.  In some visits, he was his old self, regaling the staff with his bluegrass music, but eventually, the treatments didn’t do any good.

    Two events stand out from that final weekend.  In the first, the Doctor explained to his family the options to involved in going from treatment care to palliative care – which was basically just keeping him pain free and not taking any heroic measures.  The explanations were very straightforward, so we knew what to expect.  In the last hour, I noticed that his breathing had changed and I went to get the head nurse.  She explained that the breathing indicated that the end was near.

    In both cases, the discussion was very straightforward and I appreciated it very much.

    The closest experience I have to what you are doing was during a “celebration of his life” held about a month later.  He and his wife had worked for years conserving old books at the Cornell University Library and worked with a team for a long time, so they knew the ‘older’ Frank, not the one I grew up with.

    I spent my time describing how my brother had grown up and what trouble we got into when we were kids as well as some of his life before Cornell.  One thing they hadn’t known was that he had been a Marine.

    I guess having people relive their earlier memories rather than focus on the immediate pain.

    I honor your work.

    • #16
  17. Malkadavis Inactive
    Malkadavis
    @Malkadavis

    Do you spend a few minutes preparing yourself (mentally/spiritually) for these phone calls? I would think it helpful, especially when you’re looking at multiple calls to make.

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I do meditation every day, so now I’m doing it just before I start my calls. I didn’t do that yesterday, but I did today. You’re so right!

     

    • #18
  19. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    My brother taught me a really good approach: I always ask them to tell me a story about their loved one – anything that really captured their personality or what made them special. It really helps.

    • #19
  20. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    EHerring (View Comment):

    People have heard about the uniform team the military sends to notify people of a death. What they don’t know is one member is a random officer picked to lead the team. Chaplains and counselors deal with this as part of their jobs but the unlucky random officer selected does not. Few have to ever do this important duty but it is something you will never forget doing if you must do it. I am sure law enforcement people live with the same burden. I never had to do it but I know someone who did. Deeply moving. Also, it is a helpless feeling when one can’t relieve the grief. Yet this is a so much better way than the World War II telegram.

    I’m reminded of the scene in We Were Soldiers where two wives took it upon themselves to deliver the death notification telegrams instead of the Western Union guy.  It’s 3 minutes of gut-wrenching emotion:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJyxprNJa_I

    To me, the best notable notification scene in a movie was from Saving Private Ryan:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCbVhZ3Bedo

    It’s almost impossible to watch these 2 clips with dry eyes . . .

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    And yes, Susan, you are amazing!

    • #21
  22. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Captain French (View Comment):

    EHerring (View Comment):

    People have heard about the uniform team the military sends to notify people of a death. What they don’t know is one member is a random officer picked to lead the team. Chaplains and counselors deal with this as part of their jobs but the unlucky random officer selected does not. Few have to ever do this important duty but it is something you will never forget doing if you must do it. I am sure law enforcement people live with the same burden. I never had to do it but I know someone who did. Deeply moving. Also, it is a helpless feeling when one can’t relieve the grief. Yet this is a so much better way than the World War II telegram.

    I had to do a few death notifications as an LEO. One of the most difficult tasks of the job.

    I would assume LEOs do it for more often because of car accidents and homicides.

    • #22
  23. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Just listen; then speak.

    That is what is needed, someone who will listen.

    • #23