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A few months ago, I wrote a post about my new volunteer assignment at hospice: making bereavement calls. I felt a little shaky when I began; after all, dealing with patients in the stages of dying is different from comforting those left behind. The experience is not necessarily more difficult, but then I didn’t know what to expect.
In the months since I began that work, I have discovered what a heartwarming role I can play in just a few minutes with those who have lost spouses, mothers, and fathers. I have found myself checking the ages of those people who have passed away: were they elderly? Were they relatively young? I can never be certain of the effect the age or relationship will have on our conversation, but that observation has reminded me that every encounter will be unique. Some people are reassured that their loved ones will have gone to heaven; others have felt that those who have passed on lived out valuable and productive lives. Some bereaved have wonderful support systems (church, friends, neighbors, family), and our conversation, if nothing else, reminds them that they have people around them who care about them, that they are not alone. At times our chats have been short; at other times, people have taken the time to tell me how they’ve been doing, how they miss their loved ones, or their plans to begin anew. There are even times we’ve laughed together, and those moments have felt especially blessed.
Two very important lessons have stood out for me. One, being fully present is a key factor in our exchange. Giving a person my full attention creates an undeniable connection between us; nothing else is happening in those moments. In the beginning, they are completely free to choose to engage in the conversation, or not; in the beginning, I ask if they’d mind telling me how they’re doing through my asking a few questions. I’m prepared to have any person say “no,” although no one has yet. (They just might not want to feel they’re being rude.) At the end of our conversation, I also thank them for giving me a few minutes of their time. Almost always, they not only thank me in return, but sometimes say it more than once, emphasizing that making that connection has had meaning for them.
Even those times I leave voice mails are important to me. For those calls, I say why I’ve called, that I’m sorry that I missed them, and that since we can’t chat, I will give them the number for a bereavement counselor. I am very attentive when I leave that message; I want to be comforting and kind through my words and tone; that voice mail will be my only contact with a person who may be suffering.
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Why do I appreciate making these calls so much? For one, the effort gets me outside of myself. Difficulties that I may be struggling with seem minor when I talk to people whose lives have changed in such a drastic way. I am comforted by their reactions to my calls, to their gratitude for our reaching out.
In these times, too, with Ukraine being in our sights every day, with images of bombs and people dying and knowing there is very little we can do to help, I’m reminded that there are people around us who can benefit from our reaching out. A telephone call, a personal note, an email, or a walk together can ease their own struggles and remind them that there are people who are around them who can help and who care.
I’m so very lucky to do this work.Published in