Making Bereavement Calls: A Work in Progress

 

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.

*     *     *     *

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.

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There are 10 comments.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    God bless you, Susan.

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

    Percival (View Comment):

    God bless you, Susan.

    Thanks, Percival. Part of my hope is that those of us who have been isolated in the past two years will realize that we are the ones who need to knock down barriers–sometimes our own emotional ones–and that in doing so, we can reconnect with others who feel awkward and alone.

    • #2
  3. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Susan Quinn: [B]eing 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.

    This highlights how important it is to not engage in this activity if you either have stressful things going on that can distract you or cannot set aside those concerns while you do this work. No doubt your time in Buddhism may have helped you with the latter. 

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Rodin (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn: [B]eing 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.

    This highlights how important it is to not engage in this activity if you either have stressful things going on that can distract you or cannot set aside those concerns while you do this work. No doubt your time in Buddhism may have helped you with the latter.

    Maybe! I’m also aware of how often, in retrospect, I’m not present! So, yes, it’s kind of like a meditation, which is simply (or not so simply)focusing the mind.

    I’m referring to not being present in life in general, not on my calls. I can usually focus for the calls.

    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I admire you for taking on that difficult responsibility.

    I live in a retirement community, so it’s not uncommon to lose a neighbor. One neighbor just passed two nights ago. I left a note on his widow’s door (Covid lockdown here), and then when I met her later in the hallway expressed my condolences. It is very difficult to not sound trite when you don’t know the parties well.

    I wish you well in this task you have taken on. (I started to write have undertaken, but that didn’t sound quite right.)

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    It is very difficult to not sound trite when you don’t know the parties well.

    Jim, I know some people are concerned about “saying the right thing,” and I know some people don’t agree with me, but the idea is that you are trying to comfort. We could say, “my condolences,” but that’s a bit fancy for me. I’ll stick with, “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It seems a bit more tactful and kind than saying, “Sorry your husband died.”

    • #6
  7. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    At least with hospice, the call will never be a complete shock. Still hard to lose a loved one, but knowing that it’s coming gives people time to prepare.

    • #7
  8. Hinch Member
    Hinch
    @Hinch

    After my wife passed away in hospice in 2012, I was taking care of funeral arrangements (including buying burial plots and a headstone), travel arrangements for out-of-staters coming to the service…all the normal things people have to do following the loss of a spouse.  So I was trying, and only partially succeeding, to maintain a normal state of mind, when I got a call from your volunteer counterpart with the hospice where Linda had been.   We spoke for 15 minutes, and during that conversation I remember feeling calm and not so alone for the first time in weeks.  Thank you so much, Susan, for  doing this important work.

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

    Hinch (View Comment):

    After my wife passed away in hospice in 2012, I was taking care of funeral arrangements (including buying burial plots and a headstone), travel arrangements for out-of-staters coming to the service…all the normal things people have to do following the loss of a spouse. So I was trying, and only partially succeeding, to maintain a normal state of mind, when I got a call from your volunteer counterpart with the hospice where Linda had been. We spoke for 15 minutes, and during that conversation I remember feeling calm and not so alone for the first time in weeks. Thank you so much, Susan, for doing this important work.

    Yours is the kind of feedback that makes my day and makes it all worthwhile. Thank you for inspiring me today. I’m so sorry about the passing of your wife.

    • #9
  10. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Hinch (View Comment):

    After my wife passed away in hospice in 2012, I was taking care of funeral arrangements (including buying burial plots and a headstone), travel arrangements for out-of-staters coming to the service…all the normal things people have to do following the loss of a spouse. So I was trying, and only partially succeeding, to maintain a normal state of mind, when I got a call from your volunteer counterpart with the hospice where Linda had been. We spoke for 15 minutes, and during that conversation I remember feeling calm and not so alone for the first time in weeks. Thank you so much, Susan, for doing this important work.

    Yours is the kind of feedback that makes my day and makes it all worthwhile. Thank you for inspiring me today. I’m so sorry about the passing of your wife.

    Susan, what a noble task you have taken for yourself and I cannot commend you highly enough for it. This kind of service must be one of the most difficult one can imagine and one which offers so much to the beneficiaries of your service.  

    Susan Quinn: 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.

    It is those who have little or no support systems you will help the most– we see examples all around us of widows and widowers in the stores or restaurants who are obviously so alone it just breaks your heart to see them and a visit from a good soul like yourself would almost certainly mean the world to folks like that. 

    Hinch (View Comment):

    After my wife passed away in hospice in 2012, I was taking care of funeral arrangements (including buying burial plots and a headstone), travel arrangements for out-of-staters coming to the service…all the normal things people have to do following the loss of a spouse. So I was trying, and only partially succeeding, to maintain a normal state of mind, when I got a call from your volunteer counterpart with the hospice where Linda had been. We spoke for 15 minutes, and during that conversation I remember feeling calm and not so alone for the first time in weeks. Thank you so much, Susan, for doing this important work.

    You have my deepest sympathy on your loss, the enormity of which is unimaginable to me. I have reached the age where thoughts of losing My Lady come at me out of the blue at times and, while none of us know how we would respond, I would think a visit from a counselor like Susan would be a Godsend in those dark times.  

    • #10
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