Not long ago, I called a young man in Boston, Massachusetts. His beloved grandmother had died in my California-based hospice’s care about four months ago. As with all hospices, we continue grief support after the death. Sending monthly letters with helpful information for a full year is one of our several “tools” for ongoing contact.
He had appreciated the first mailings.
In that recent call to his home in Boston, he asked me to stop the mail.
Why? The novel coronavirus. This pandemic. This disrupter of every aspect of our living, and our dying. How things have changed in a day, in a week, in a year. The young man shared that he was more reluctant to take the short trip to his mailbox. And he had read cautionary words about sealing envelopes with a moistened cloth versus a quick tongue lick. My hospice sends thousands of letters out every month: we don’t lick each envelope! But how can the receiver of the mail tell the difference when fearful or worried?
Wasn’t he overreacting?
He was already grieving the death of a family member from a cancer that had been invisible, silent, and opportunistic. Now an invisible, silent, opportunistic virus had changed (again) his world. And changed it for me. And for you . . . wherever you are in the world.
Not long ago, several siblings from a long-ago church youth group that I had worked with at the beginning of my ministry asked me to help with their father’s funeral. I knew their Dad; he had been a low-key but important mentor in my first years as a pastor. I immediately said I would be honored to assist. This was several weeks ago. The funeral is now postponed. Or cancelled?
Not long ago, one of our chaplains and I chatted in the hallway at the office where we work. I was there to collect a laptop and phone to work from home. He had just finished an appointment with someone trying to find him a mask to wear when doing home patient visits. No available mask had properly fit. Now what should he do? He wanted to support his patients and their families. But suddenly his compassionate desire to be there for others was undermined by a lack of equipment.
Our social workers have been turned away at the doors of some skilled nursing facilities (or SNFs). Which makes sense. Which is also profoundly frustrating. And it’s worse for families. In the SNF—including similar places that care for the elderly, convalescing, disabled, those with terminal illnesses—the family members are told they can no longer visit like they once did. Once being a few weeks ago.
Supporting a dying loved one is hard enough. Not being able to support them is worse.
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When dying . . .
Hospice patients can despise being out of control. (A dying person may respond with a “No” to even trivial requests from family or hospice staff because that negative reaction represents the little power they can claim.) Whether cancer, COPD, or a thousand other diseases, the ones who face death can resent their increasingly limited world. They worry about being a burden. There are hospice patients that keep stumbling and falling on the way to the bathroom, rather than agreeing to having a commode nearby or a catheter inserted. I can do it on my own! Rented hospital beds are refused. I want my own bed! A hospice home health aide is put off for a week, and then another week, because the patient:
- doesn’t need anyone’s support . . . ever!
- doesn’t want a “stranger” seeing them naked (modesty for personal or religious reasons can be a huge factor).
- resists anyone witnessing how vulnerable they are.
- or all of the above.
We can’t stand to lose control.
A virus—invisible, silent, opportunistic—has taken out-of-control to new, impossible levels.
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Grief too . . .
If we cling to a smidgen of control while dying, it’s similar for the caregivers after a loved one’s death.
- We don’t like to cry in public; now many grievers can’t be out in public.
- We don’t want to be around those who don’t understand what it means to have a spouse die; now we’re not even supposed to be around other people.
- Social media helps, except that it can never give you a hug.
In grief support, I always try to emphasize (and frequently repeat) some of the “normal” reactions during grief:
- Our concentration is compromised.
- We are exhausted much of the time (or all of the time).
- Poor eating habits take over. (I recall a support group member who “confessed” to subsisting on chocolate. This person wasn’t kidding.)
- Lack of sleep, or too much sleep.
- Random tears.
- And . . .
This “normal” list could continue. Grief undermines everything we once assumed was manageable. Now, with “shelter in” and “social distancing,” everyone is trapped in a house of mirrors. A griever’s world has literally dwindled to silent rooms and hasty trips to essential places—like supermarkets or doctors’ offices—that can unleash difficult memories.
I will encourage you to do what others recommend. Stay in touch with supportive friends and family. Make a telephone call; text or message with Facebook/Twitter/etc.; ask your hospice grief counselor to contact you. Use social media to your advantage, even as you are careful about all the online nonsense. Stop over-watching the bad news. All of my suggestions, or ones that you find elsewhere, will seem inadequate. As we continue to confront the uncertainties of this global virus, I think of Maya Angelou’s words: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
Well, maybe I’ll complain a little!
But let me, let everyone, seek to find ways to support and care for each other.
(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.)
[Photo at top: on most mornings, my dog takes me for walks. Last Saturday, one familiar route took us by the Fresno Mormon Temple located in our neighborhood. On a typical early Saturday morning, there are usually a dozen to a hundred cars in the lot. Not last Saturday . . .]by