Everyone (mostly) Needs Help

According to the social worker’s earliest notes on the medical chart, the patient’s son didn’t want any grief support after his father died.

The nurse who’d cared for his father echoed those sentiments when the family was discussed in the hospice team meeting. Since the patient—the father—had been in our hospice’s care for several months, there had been multiple visits by the social worker, nurse, and chaplain. All agreed the son said (before and at the time of death) that he was okay. Additionally, the son’s cousin—more like a trusted friend since childhood—happened to be one of our hospice nurses.

This cousin/nurse affirmed what others concluded: the son had shared he didn’t need additional bereavement support after his father’s death.

He.

Was.

Fine.

But the cousin, my hospice colleague, also said to me, and to the social worker who’d write the official chart notes, that the son should be contacted anyway.

“Give him a call,” the cousin/nurse said.

My hospice responsibilities include checking on people after the death of their family member or friend. We make at least a few phone calls and mail monthly letters for a year in an effort stay connected with the grieving. Other hospices do what we do; follow-up is a Medicare mandate. Those guidelines include not calling or sending letters if the individual doesn’t want contact. Before and after the dying, hospice tries to respect people’s wishes.

While the deceased patient’s son—let’s dub him Liam*—had openly shared with hospice staff that he didn’t need support, he (according to the social worker) offhandedly gave “permission” for contact.

Maybe he agreed because he didn’t like to say “no” when asked a question?

Maybe he agreed since his cousin worked for the hospice and he didn’t want to disappointment one of his favorite people?

I found Liam’s  contact information in the chart.

*          *          *

At my hospice we not only offer phone calls and letters, but have licensed counselors, support groups, grief-based workshops, and more.

But how many grievers truly need help?

With few exceptions, those experiencing a loved one’s death will likely survive the first numbing waves of pain and loss and anxiety and helplessness. After all, everyone dies. Everyone grieves. An oft-quoted phrase (and I’ve quoted it!) is: “Time heals.” It does. Again, with few exceptions, how you feel weeks or months after the death will be different a year later. The odds are you will be . . . better. The sun will still appear in the morning. Life will have resumed its hectic pace. The demands of work will ebb and flow. You’ll gripe about taxes. Decisions, from selling the house to buying skim vs. 2% milk, will be made. You’ll smile or laugh and not immediately feel guilty.

Time will pass. Your awful feelings will become less awful.

*          *          *

I called Liam.

It was several weeks after his father’s death.

I’ll often call “clients” after the death and never talk with them. People screen calls. People have multiple phones and ignore all of them. People never answer a call from a number they don’t recognize. No problem. I do that too. I leave a simple, caring message, reassuring each one that our hospice’s grief support is available for them and their family. I’m confident they’ll appreciate the effort when (if) they listen to my message. I’m also confident they’ll get a letter in the mail. Many never have direct contact with us, but I think they know ongoing bereavement help is an option.

Liam answered his phone.

And we talked.

And talked.

I found out about his father, about how Liam felt good about the time he’d shared with his father in the final months. He appreciated the responsiveness of the hospice staff. He treasured how he and his sisters had worked together to respond to their father’s needs. Now grieving, Liam had good friends, a supportive family, and seemed just fine.

And then he said—sorry, this won’t be dramatic—that he was glad I’d called, that it was nice to chat about his father. He missed his Dad. He also said he felt different than what he expected. In the days since the death, he realized how many of the simple things he’d done with and for his father would never happen again. Liam understood now that even sharing a cup of coffee with another were special moments. He didn’t have regrets, but was feeling the chasm of loss. As far as I could tell, Liam was mentally strong, physically healthy, and had compassionate friends and family.

But he authentically enjoyed talking on the phone.

He said he’d look forward to the information sent in the mail. He expressed gratitude about knowing he could use the hospice’s grief resources, whether it was next month or next year.

I could make stuff up. I could write half-truths and declare that phoning Liam provided his miserable, grieving life with the spark of hope he desperately needed. I could claim the tears he’d been denying (because men shouldn’t reveal weakness) rightfully flowed like a mighty river because of my life-changing call.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

My best guess is that Liam will be fine.

However, I know the phone call did help him. As common as grief is for average, tax-paying, calorie-counting folks, it can be healthy and healing to have contact with professionals. A loved one’s death is one of the hardest times of life. We can never fully prepare it. Never.

Did Liam need follow-up? In one form or another, I believe everyone does.

And I think Liam also appreciated it.

(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.)

 

*I found one of those many websites listing popular baby names from various countries. Since it’s literally and historically neutral, silly me randomly chose Switzerland’s second most popular baby name from 2015: Liam!

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Comments

  1. Larry
    I thank you for your writings. I look forward to receiving them. I have responded to other writings you have posted but this one is different. It is different because 1 year ago this December I was preparing for my brother’s death. December is not a good time to take care of someone you really hardly know. I insisted on hospice care. The hospital insisted on Palliative Care. So many things went wrong. On January 1 he died. No hospice. I am left with nothing except to take care of what needed to be done. There was really no one to talk to. My dad was grieving. My husband and family not really supportive. I screwed up at work several times. I was a mess. It was not pretty. It would have been good to have someone call me and ask how I was doing. Even for me to say “I’m OK.” It has been a long journey to lose your only sibling. It has almost been a year. It is lonely and sad at times. Yes, things will continue…. but the support would have been helpful and reassuring.
    I encourage anyone who is involved in this business, no matter who, to make the call even if you think it wont make a difference because it could make someone’s day and burden a little lighter. I am not always so good at making the calls because of various reasons. It is an excuse. Just pick up the phone.

    Keep up your writings. I look forward to reading your book.

    Regina Mendenhall

    • Regina . . .

      So sorry that you had a difficult, frustrating time with your brother’s dying and death. And that some of that frustration (to say the least) has continued as you grieve. I do appreciate you posting your experiences. I hope others will read your words, and be reminded of how important it is to “make the call” to those who are hurting.

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