My New Four-Letter Words

Words Matter

As much as my words could be labeled as platitudes or clichés, they are heartfelt . . .

There are two four-letter words that I have usually said at the close of a conversation with someone grieving: Take care. In recent weeks, I have added two “new” four-letter words because of the microscopic onslaught of Covid-19: Stay safe.

There are additional slightly longer or shorter words that are included in my predictable, simplistic responses when trying to support those hurting after the death of a loved one:

  • How are you doing?
  • Is this a good time to talk?
  • Can I call you again?
  • Your (crying, not crying, eating, not eating, silence, worries, lack of concentration, weariness, plunging back into work) seems normal.

As much as my words could be labeled as platitudes or clichés, they are heartfelt. At the end of a phone call to a griever, a few weeks or months after the death, I say the Take care like it is a prayer. I indeed mean it as a prayer, as a spoken and shared hope for their future. And I don’t mean the future of years, but the future of a griever’s next moments and hours. When we grieve, time skids out of our control, like a car losing traction on a road’s black ice. Time slows. Time accelerates. A minute takes an hour. A day can whoosh by and we can’t recall anything accomplished between waking and returning to bed. My Take care is about treading lightly into the next moments. It’s about acknowledging a world that has temporarily lost color, meaning, clarity, purpose, plans, and so many other things that seemed “easy” a day or decade ago.

Now, in these last weeks (and weeks), I sometimes include, Stay safe.

It’s a plea. It’s the common deep end of the global pool we are all treading right now. How can a virus—unseen with our anxious eyes, nearly undetectable, innocently shared, and unknowingly received—unleash such havoc? And yet it does. The worst part we know. Death is the grim result that may come a few weeks later for a tiny, but disconcerting percentage of people. Oh, how I despise it when someone declares that every year the flu kills X% of people . . . as if that’s better or worse by comparison. There are also those who claim one country is more successful with Covid-19 than another because “our” death rate is Y% compared to “their” death rate of Z%.

Death did come. To far, far too many.

A literally deaf and dumb virus destroys lives. Whether the deceased was loving and caring or a grumpy, angry human being, each one was a precious person. Now, dead.

However, the worst part is not the only part.

Stay safe, I say, or Stay healthy, because the place most of us don’t like to spend any time at (and during the “normal” dying and death we spent too much time at) is a hospital. Hospitals have become the World War I trenches of this cruel pandemic.

  • I want doctors to stay safe.
  • I want nurses to stay safe.
  • I want home health aides to stay safe.
  • I want social workers to stay safe.
  • I want chaplains to stay safe.
  • I want janitors to stay safe.
  • I want clerks at the market to stay safe.
  • I want pharmacists to stay safe.
  • I want . . .

I especially want the people who I never like to spend time with—all the wonderful, dedicated professionals at the frontline hospitals who are called to help keep their fellow humans well and active and alive—to all be safe.

And I truly, humbly want the griever I am talking to, as a brief or long conversation comes to an end, to be safe.Other words

I want what I can’t guarantee.

But I say what I mean.

In the four-letter words I speak, with the oft-repeated phrases used, I mean them. And that, I hope, is what represents the difference between an empty response versus my hopeful longing. I don’t think many grievers are overly bothered by the simple questions (How are you?) or statements (Take care) that come their way. What likely irritates them is when words are said without meaning, without time to listen to an answer, without an authentic concern for their well-being.

This is an impossible, absurd, and deadly time.

All of our words will be inadequate. But when we say them, will we make the effort to hear a response? Will we ask them truly wanting to know the answer? Will we ask them, willing to continue to wait through the silence until the griever trusts us enough to be honest?

So, I have added Stay safe to my short list of over-used words.

I mean 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 used Praise Song for the Pandemic recently in a Zoom staff support gathering. I was deeply touched by it:

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