Speaking the Deepest Truths of Grief

Putting a time limit on grief is like standing on the beach…

It was a tour of the hospice offices. Simple stuff.

But there was that guy.

Why didn’t I keep my trap shut?

Couldn’t I have read his mind? (Or, realistically, detected a hint of pain?)

As a professional, possessing a solid educational background and years of experience, how come I didn’t have right words at the right time to voice? But, as it’s jokingly and seriously said, sometimes . . . “Shit happens.”

It did that night.

Before explaining further, picture this man. He’s mid-seventies. His clothes are clean, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists. His pants are unremarkable, with creases no longer sharp. The shoes need polishing. The crow’s feet framing his eyes have merged with other lines and creases. From forehead to chin, his face is a well-worn 3D topographical map. He’s leaner than beef jerky, and, so—to protect confidentiality—I’ll call him Slim Jim.

On his left hand, the gnarled finger closest to the pinkie, there’s a ring.

I didn’t notice it until later.

A friend shadows him, probably younger by a decade. This guy—let’s call him Nodding Norm—never speaks. But when his friend starts talking in a few minutes, he nods emphatically with every word.

Why was I with these two fellows?

They were on a tour of our hospice offices. Like every other hospice agency hoping to keep finances in the black, we were hosting a two-fer. First, we were hyping new programs, providing “insider” information to donors. Food would be served. Brief speeches given. Tours conducted. And, second, there would be an opportunity to—you guessed it—give money.

Hospice is not an easy sell. Treat your donors well!

And so there I was, prior to the appetizers and speeches, offering a low-key tour. Among the half-dozen or so folks were these two guys.

Nodding Norm was silent.

Slim Jim, who’d said nothing after my initial babbling about the wonderful work taking place in these offices by my colleagues, abruptly and loudly interrupted me.

“You people from hospice always talk too much.”

Nodding Norm vigorously nodded.

The others in the tour group uncomfortably smiled and soon drifted off to find the appetizers.

“That’s what happened when the nurses and those others came to our home,” Slim Jim muttered. “They started talking. Asking questions. Telling me and the wife what to do. How to do things. When. Why. What. I felt like a fool.”

More nodding.

“I’m sorry,” I weakly said.

“Talk, talk, talk.” Slim Jim wildly gestured, as if swatting mosquitoes. And then, his hands slowed as he brushed tears from his cheeks.

That’s when I noticed his wedding ring.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated. And I was, with just a little sorry-ness for me and my embarrassment at being next to a guy that was irritated, crying, and speaking his deep truth. And even more sorry for him, because, without mentioning it, I now knew he was struggling with . . .

Grief.

I’ll be honest with you. My immediate internal reactions to his outburst were two rational questions:

  1. Didn’t he know this was a simple tour of our hospice grief support services?
  2. How could I have possibly guessed he was a bundle of anguish and anger?

Hey, who can read minds? (Which, mostly, I’m thankful for.)

I wish I could tell you the next words I shared with Slim Jim were perfect and kind and sensitive and empathetic and that they clearly helped him in that moment. And, if I had been able to say anything approaching a helpful response, I wish I could also report that Nodding Norm nodded in approval to my compassionate support.

This did not happen.

I listened to Slim Jim ramble a little more. I apologized again. We did shake hands. He did keep crying. And later, I saw him hovering around the appetizers. He and his buddy left before the speakers were finished.

I never learned Slim Jim’s real name. I don’t know when his wife died. I don’t know how long our hospice cared for her. Weeks? Months? I do know that we—the nurses, the social workers, the chaplains, the doctors, the home health aides—talked too much. Me too.

We talk. We read instructions. We share HIPAA guidelines. We explain procedures. We complete forms. We answer questions, but then ask more questions.

Someone is dying.

Their loved ones are hurting.

There is so much that needs to be said.

One patient and family—like Slim Jim—will complain that we explain too much.

The next patient and family will complain that we didn’t explain enough.

If I got a do-over, I would’ve sat on a couch in the waiting room of the office. I would’ve patted the space beside me and invited Slim Jim to sit. I would’ve told him I was glad that he came, and then—like Nodding Norm—I would have been silent. I think Slim Jim needed to talk. Needed to cry. Needed to be angry. Needed to . . .

Grieve.

We can’t read other people’s minds. Grief, and I say this all the time and never say it enough, is a different path for each person. I am glad Slim Jim thought he could get angry at me. I am glad we later shook hands. I wish I could’ve done more. Or less.

Remember this, whomever reads these words: grief is a wound. It will heal. But, especially with those we love deeply, it’s a wound that will heal without every fully healing. No, I don’t expect that to make sense. Death, sudden or after a long, lousy illness, is hard. Impossibly hard. Grief follows, hoisting its randomly swinging sledgehammer of body blows. Then grief gets better. When? Can’t say. But it will get better and it will never go away. Anyone who says there’s “closure” is a liar. Having a funeral is not closure. Getting past the first year is not closure. Putting a time limit on grief is like standing on the beach and ordering the tide not to ebb and flow.

Talking helps. Crying helps.

Not talking helps. Not crying helps.

Sometimes, stumbling around, wanting so much to comfort a friend, the best you can do is be like Nodding Norm. You nod in support. You try to be there for the other. And, though you might wish you could read minds . . . you can’t.

If my boss asks me to help with another tour, I hope to babble less and listen more.

(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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Comments

  1. This was beautifully expressed. Thank you for sharing this. Please don’t stop sharing, asking questions and ‘babbling’. Grief is so messy.

  2. I do Not, of course, know slim.but I know the terrible need to say what he said and the equally terrible fear that doing so will thrust him onto a slippery slope of retaliation under guise of caring words and heavy sedation.
    You let.him eject a little of the pus that grief builds up. You blessed under the guise of an apology
    No.do over needed. Who knows wjwd but you did what a follower of The Way does
    Bless you.

  3. Couldn’t you have been a little less relevant today? I didn’t intend to click on your post today but tears flowed as I did and as i thought of caring for my son during his last 6 weeks. Mr Slim Jim was right but so are you. Damn, it’s hard, there are no right answers, but we couldn’t get through it as far as we do without folks like you.

    • Thanks, Barbara. I appreciate your reading (and making a comment), and am humbled by your tears. How impossibly difficult to be a parent caring for a dying child.

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