The Universal Language of Hospice

Lines at airport

I do not speak Japanese.

And yet, while waiting for a flight home in Seattle, I overheard and possibly understood a conversation between two Japanese tourists.

Our flight was hours away. My wife and I had settled into seats above the endless passengers winding through the TSA lines. Not far from Sea-Tac’s “meditation room” (who knew airports had places like that), she graded papers from her university students while I people-watched. Those passing by were slower in pace. Catching snippets of conversation was easy in the quieter hallway.

Mothers corrected children.

A married couple complained about a flight delay.

A plane’s crew shared stories as they entered a room designated for breaks between flights.

A solitary soldier chatting on his phone bee-lined for the USO location a few doors away.

Two well-dressed men, both Japanese, moved by me. Their hands gripped rolling suitcases, with one talking rapidly to his companion. Everything said was beyond my comprehension, until one word was clearly expressed:


The solitary word hung in the air.

The man beside him, his pace matching his companion’s steps, immediately sighed loudly.


Did I really need a translation?

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A universal language

Dying, death, and grief are part of a universal language. Yes, every culture, region, and faith has its own unique approaches. In grief support groups I have led, I rightly repeat that everyone’s way of grieving will be different. But wherever you live, in whatever era you have lived in, and whatever you believe (or don’t believe), the reality of death will always touch you. Me. Us.

When I was a newly minted hospice chaplain in the 1990s, I saw patients that were unlike my visits with church members. In those congregations, rural or suburban, I had already met most of the dying people I saw. They shared beliefs, along with seats around a table at potlucks or church meetings. They had heard (or ignored) my sermons. However, in hospice, I traveled to homes in the poorest and richest sections of the town. I was with Muslims and Jews on the same day. I entered into tiny apartments with Hmong families that had been in the United States for a few years and with those who could trace their heritage back to the 1800s. The hospice patients were rich and poor. They were hurting and afraid of death. They were peaceful and ready to die.

They all died. And each patient, and each family, so radically and wonderfully unique, were linked by the inexplicable mystery of mortality. Death, whatever language is used, literally levels us.

The best response

Without knowing them, I knew the pain and even the hope that those two Japanese travelers carried in their hearts as they continued their conversation with a . . .


It could have been a groan. A nod. An attentive tilt of the head. Eye contact. A gentle touch. Open arms for a hug. A shoulder squeeze. A tender, whispered, uh-huh.

How that second man reacted when the first mentioned “hospice,” seemed so appropriate.

Dying and death do stun us.

Upon learning of a friend or colleague who is dying or has died, will there be an awkward silence? Or, perhaps worse, will you:

  • Babble nonsense?
  • Abruptly change the subject?
  • Scan for the nearest door, scheming a quick exit?
  • No longer speak the ill or deceased person’s name?

I admired the second man’s immediate response: a sigh. He let the first man know that the words shared—and the fears or uncertainties or honesty or more behind those words—were heard. Without knowing them, I believe that one expressed a hard truth—hospice—and his companion declared he was willing to listen, and to continue listening.

Sharing the path

The second man also kept walking with the first. Was the first man, the one who said hospice, the one who was dying? Or was a loved one dying? Or were both men, in their exchange, referring to a co-worker or mutual friend who was dying? Of course, I don’t know. But from before overhearing a snippet of conversation, I observed these two walk by, and to continue to walk away, always side-by-side, stride for stride. Together.

And isn’t that part of the hospice journey for many? When hospice becomes part of your health care, when dying will likely occur in “six months or less,” we need people to walk with us. We need the support of family and friends. We need the hospice team to help give guidance and provide some of the tools (medical equipment, pain medication), along with emotional and spiritual support for patients and their caregivers.

Hospice care works best when many share the precarious, precious path.

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Am I making too much of a brief observation in a hectic international airport?


With my involvement in hospice, aren’t I inclined to think others might mention it? It’s like being in a crowd when someone shouts my name. Don’t they want me? Hey, there is more than one Larry in the world! Do any Japanese words sound like hospice? What if someone muttered hostage or auspice in English? Would I imagine hospice had been the word?

And it was only two men dashing from point A to point B. Aren’t all of us hurrying and scurrying and worrying, busy with our lives? Our days blur. We have jam-packed schedules, with stuff to do and stuff we haven’t yet done. We don’t have time to be bothered with a common cold, let alone sit across from a doctor announcing cancer or COPD or dementia or six months or less to live . . .

But when we do hear those most difficult of words, they come in a universal language. When you hear them, I hope others will be walking alongside you.

(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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