Grief On A Busy Street In Australia

How easily technology aids communication…

This is a tale of tears.

I’ve written about crying before. I likely will again. Tears are grief’s soundtrack; weeping is a river that flows through wounded souls.

With my current work in hospice, I lead grief support groups three or four times a year. Maybe there are a dozen participants in each group and so I may annually meet forty new people through the sessions. Before they enter the room, I don’t know most of them.

I also help staff several activities that our hospice sponsors during the year. When added up, hundreds from the community attend these programs for an hour or an afternoon. I won’t know most of them.

One of my key tasks is contacting grieving families after the death. Weekly, I spend hours pressing numbers on a phone’s keypad. I make 10-15 daily calls. There is 50+ a week, 200 or so a month, and perhaps 2,500 a year. With many, I leave messages. Most who answer, when there’s a chance to converse, I don’t know.

I recently (or a year ago) made one of those thousands of phone calls to an “unknown” griever. However, I did know his recently deceased parent. His father was a chaplain at our hospice for several years and we had both attended lengthy patient care meetings together. I’d also talked with patients the father had served as a chaplain. And, given what my job entails, I’d scanned entries in medical charts by this chaplain about his patients.

[Disclaimer.]

He was a good guy and a compassionate chaplain. Soft spoken and sweet, he’d always take the extra minute or hour to listen to someone who was hurting. In meetings, he added supportive reactions or funny comments that would enliven a dull hour.

This chaplain left our hospice for a church or hospital or overseas mission opportunity. (Hey, I want to keep these fake details about his life as ambiguous as possible!)

And then he died. Prostate cancer: one day seemingly healthy, the next day not. Served by the hospice where he’d once worked, he never saw sixty candles on his birthday cake.

Now I called his son.

Here’s the truth: I didn’t know his father that well. We’d survived boring meetings together and chatted in the office hallways. We’d consulted on a handful of patients. I’d read chart notes. But, unlike his family or his network of friends, I was more of a professional acquaintance.

Still, I knew him.

I pressed the numbers for his son’s phone. If he answered, I wanted the son to take the lead in the brief or lengthy conversation we might have.

There was an odd, electronic static, and then a normal connection. Later, I suspected the peculiar sound occurred because the son was vacationing in Australia. Cell phones, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they have a long leash.

“Hello?” he answered.

I explained who I was and my reason for calling. I expressed my sympathies and gently wondered how he was doing.

Beautiful Melbourne

He was fine. It was a tough loss. His family was supportive. Early on, he referenced being in Melbourne, Australia. In the vague background, I heard snippets of conversation, vehicles braking, and muffled music. I pictured him in a crowd of people, perhaps near a street corner, maybe heading to or from a restaurant for breakfast. Also later, I did the calculations. Since I was in California and he was in Australia, I talked to him on my Wednesday afternoon during his Thursday morning.

He was calm, even nonchalant. Said he missed his father. The son seemed like a twenty or thirty-something guy in charge of his life and ready to handle anything . . . the strong, self-reliant type.

Just guesses. I’d never met him.

But I wanted to tell him that I’d worked with his father. I mentioned being in meetings with him, and that we joked around and got to know each other a little. And I told the son, as he stood somewhere in Melbourne, on vacation, that I admired his father and missed working with him.

Which was when it happened.

I told you there would be tears in this story.

The son wept.

And for a long cell phone moment, with the bustling city of Melbourne in the background, and with thousands of miles separating us, a strong young man could no longer speak. He missed his father. He. Missed. His. Dad.

Did I make him cry? No, not intentionally.

But I did want him to know a truth: his father was special to me.

I won’t say what else we talked about. Partly, I listened to him cry and mutter a few sentences. Crying is normal. Crying, like laughing, happens. Just before we said goodbye, he thanked me for calling. It was heartfelt. He meant it.

This I believe about how we deal with the deaths of the people in our lives . . . we need to talk about them. We need to tell and hear their stories. Because our culture demands it, because we want to be that way, because we think it’s safer or easier, many try to come across as strong and tough and able to deal with the loss of life and love. We’ll get over it. We aren’t weak or in need of anyone’s help.

But we are weak. When a loved one dies, there is such pain.

I wish I could avoid grief. I can’t.

I wish you could avoid grief. You can’t.

I recall that peculiar sound just before the son answered. It probably involved a phone line connecting through an underwater cable or a soaring satellite or a leapfrog of cell phone towers that all, nearly instantly, created a connection to someone across the ocean.

How easily technology aids communication.

But, in reality, real communication is hard. Through email and texts and Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and and Skype and whatever is next developed for the digital age, we can have real-time connect.

But will we lovingly, openly, tenderly communicate?

The son and I will probably never meet. But I think, for a sliver of a moment, we shared in the story of his father. His tears were real. His loss is hard.

My job was not to make him cry. Or maybe it was.

(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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