A Sacred Silence

Woman on the beach

“She loved the ocean more than flying,” he had once said to me.

Before meeting my new patient, I spotted her Ford Mustang. The well-kept red convertible was parked on the street, by her brother’s driveway.

The license plate frame declared: Fly Away!

While unsure it was her car on that first visit, the frame’s message was a solid clue. Based on the medical chart notes, she was a flight attendant in her early forties.

This was years ago when I worked as a hospice chaplain. Most of our patients lived in their homes. I recollect visiting her a half-dozen times. From our first awkward handshake to the final moment I sat beside her hospital bed in her brother’s living room, our patient-chaplain relationship had grown stronger. She learned to trust me. I certainly learned from her as she continued living and loving while cancer relentlessly destroyed her body. Even at my last visit, her short gray-blonde hair was stylish. Her make-up, aided by her sister-in-law, was impeccable.

She never spoke one word to me.

Though the cancer spread across her once-athletic body, it had started in her throat. Long before entering hospice, she’d the lost the ability to speak.

+      +      +

I currently spend hours at hospice on the phone. According to my wordy title, I am a Bereavement Support Specialist and do what other staff and volunteers in other hospices do: talk with people after a loved one’s death. Part of a hospice’s requirement is to support the grieving. Every hospice accomplishes that mandate in different ways. It may mean a couple of letters are mailed to families after the death. Or—like the hospice where I work—monthly letters arrive until after the first anniversary of the death. Some hospices make a single post-death phone call. Others make multiple calls.

I do a lot of calling.

I talk, trying to gauge how folks are doing, making sure they know about our additional resources for grief support. On the phone, long minutes pass with me only muttering, “I see” or “Really.” I want them to know I’m paying attention, but don’t want to interrupt their stories or worries. Most calls are brief, though others—like one last week—can last an hour. A few of the hundreds of calls I make every month cause me to feel that something I said, or how I listened, helped a hurting person find a glimmer of hope in their day.

I enjoy what I do. My parents said I had “the gift of gab.” By background I am a pastor and spent years preaching, striving to keep people’s attention for at least a portion of a sermon. In churches I served, there were always more phone calls to make: giving folks the “wonderful” chance to serve on committees, work with youth, or teach Sunday school. Oh boy, it’s the pastor calling!

Talk on, Larry!

And I do. After politely asking a wounded, fragile person if this is a good time to talk, I fulfill the Medicare mandate to comfort grieving family and friends.

+      +      +

The red Mustang’s owner never said a word.

Our first encounter was awkward with a capital A. I was a stranger. I babbled. I struggled to find questions that allowed her to shake her head “No” or to nod “Yes.” Her doting brother, who had convinced her to move in with his family when the cancer made living alone impossible, hovered in the background. He didn’t want some fool of a hospice chaplain to upset her. This was his little sister. This was one of the last parts of his family that shared his childhood memories.

With each visit, I babbled less and focused on posing simple yes/no questions.

We prayed.

We held hands.

We made lots of eye contact. There were stretches of silence. Initially, it felt uncomfortable. Eventually, it felt sacred.

Red Mustand

After leaving, passing by her red convertible as it gathered more dust every week, I would sometime weep.

She had a million-dollar smile. She forgave my mistakes, fumbling questions, and apologies. She never saw my tears. (After leaving, passing by her red convertible as it gathered more dust every week, I would sometime weep.) My silent patient died less than two months after our first visit. Her brother buried her ashes in a cemetery with a view of the Pacific.

“She loved the ocean more than flying,” he had once said to me.

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Professionally, I understand the importance of words. Even my simple “Oh, really” contains the power to gently remind a person at the other end of the phone that I am still there, still listening.

But I also know the power of silence. Of touch. Of eye contact. Of shared smiles.

I know some are reluctant to spend time with a loved one who is dying or grieving because they don’t know what to say. So I say: say nothing.

Enter the room.

Enter into their day and let them know by a touch, by a nod, by a smile, by a tear, that you are there.

And so are they.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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[As with other essays, I have revised and re-posted this one. If you dig around my “old” musings on Hospice Matters, you could probably find the earlier one. This particular encounter, years and years ago now, represents a small, pivotal slice of my ministry. I have sent a version of my relationship with the “silent woman” to a number of online and print publications. Always, they were rejected. Drats, eh?! I think my visits with her were central because all words were stripped away. As a one-time preacher, and a guy who enjoys spinning a sentence on the page, I had to rely on being vulnerable and honestly present to her needs. No pretense. No safe platitudes. Though often faltering, that’s something I continue striving for everyday . . .]

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Comments

  1. One of the few gifts my loved one gave me through the process of their terminal illness was learning to just be in the silence. The illness was dementia and the last part of our time did not allow for the give and take of conversation. I could and did have one sided chats but unlike the well scripted monologues in movies the subjects run their course quickly. Once language, hearing and reality were gone, and touch was startling and clearly unwelcome; just being present was all that was left and it became enough. It took some time to get comfortable with the silence. I tried really hard not to think. Just to be there. Your term, sacred was probably the best term for how it felt.

  2. Hi Larry Intereting read. Yes, at times ‘holding space is all that is needed. Have you ever found their favorite music is an added asset?

    Cheers,

    tony

    • Thanks, Tony.

      I have personally not used music. But, when I was a chaplain, one of my colleagues always sang to his patients. Since I have no singing voice (a polite description), I was jealous! In the hospice where I currently work, we have several music therapists.

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