They didn’t know each other, and they only knew me in the briefest and most problematic of days.
One Was Dying. Another was Near Death. The third was During Grief.
I think of them now, years—and decades—later, equally grateful and humbled for what I learned while spending time with them. As always, I will try to change a little or a lot of their story to disguise each guy’s true identity.
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The Guy During Grief . . .
He spoke in every one of the dozen grief support group sessions. I think it was only in the first gathering, where I shared the mandatory material about confidentiality and participant guidelines, that he did not mention a phrase that served as his personal mantra:
Nobody understands me.
And it wasn’t just once during the following eleven sessions that I heard Nobody understands me, but multiple times on a weekly basis whenever we had an open-ended sharing time or when he was responding to a specific question or concern. It could start a sentence or conclude one.
Guy During Grief’s wife of forty-plus years had died a few months before. He was hurting. He was lonely. He was thinking about things—like how to pay the bills she always handled or go grocery shopping like she always did—that physically hurt to plan for and accomplish. His adult kids did not understand him. His weekly poker buddies did not understand him. The people at church—he went because his wife made him attend—did not understand him.
We had ten or so people in his late morning death of partner/spouse group, a time of day that skewed older. But there was a mix of somewhat young (a few in their fifties) and elderly (several lively octogenarians). Age-wise, he was somewhere in the middle. He was also “average” for the length of the relationship. One person had been hitched for fifty years, but that span was divided by four marriages. It was wife #4, who had been his high school sweetheart, rediscovered at a class reunion, that brought that fellow to the group. His seven years of joyous, late-in-life wedded bliss had been ruined by cancer. He was crushed.
When Guy During Grief said, session after session, Nobody understands me, the fellow with four wives would nod in agreement.
As did the fifty-something woman, who slowly revealed herself to be a born-again Christian with a drinking problem.
As did the mid-eighties guy that had been married since he was seventeen.
As did the just-retired woman, her plans for traveling the country in an RV with her beloved second husband now in literal ashes, and who rarely said anything unless I asked her a direct question.
Guy During Grief wasn’t the most likeable of participants. He was always a few minutes late. In one of the early sessions, he dominated a sharing time with a long (and, yes, dull) story about a disagreement with his oldest daughter. It took effort on my part—where I earned my big bucks—to redirect him a little, and to get him to stop talking.
But here’s the thing. Whenever he muttered or nearly shouted, Nobody understands me . . . each person in the group silently, or by body language, or with sparse words, agreed with him.
As the group progressed, his language swapped one word for another: Nobody understands us.
Yeah, not every time, but often enough: us. I don’t exaggerate the frequency of his “mantra.” But, during the group and now looking in memory’s rearview mirror, there truly was not one time when the participants seemed to grow weary of his announcement.
I don’t think grief support groups are for everyone. Some don’t need them. Some will do better with one-on-one counseling. Some desperately need additional support, but stubbornness or shyness or workaholic-ness or any number of other nesses and messes in their life cause them to avoid groups. For many, though, a grief group becomes a lifeline. It can serve as a bridge to a new and renewed way of life. Not perfect. Not without tears. But groups offer a few steps in the direction of healing.
- I believe everyone grieves differently.
- I believe most people need the reminders from other people that they are not alone.
- I believe most people need to tell stories about their beloved. When they can. When they need to.
- I believe most people who think they cry too much need support from people who think they also cry too much. Or sleep too much or too little. Or work too much or too little. Or that don’t eat or do nothing but “graze” junk food all day long.
- I believe only those most intensely grieving are able to comfortably and powerfully reach out—with words or silences, offering a tissue, sharing hugs or a thumbs-up on Zoom—to demonstrate authentic support to a fellow griever.
And so, every time we sat in that uneven circle, in a nondescript room, Guy During Grief would declare: Nobody understands me.
He was right.
Except in that group, during those weeks, he was supported by people who did.
He healed . . . a little.
I didn’t have much to do with any of the growth he may have experienced. It was all about those other folks, in the cold, metal folding chairs, who nodded their heads and helped him see that he was not alone.
(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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[Posted before this were the companion musings Guy Dying and Guy Near Death. Each of these three guys, though certain details are intentionally blurred, represent the “simple” subjects where a hospice staff spends most of their time and efforts. Those subjects are also what many in modern Western culture avoid, downplay, rationalize away, procrastinate about, and generally try to ignore. Dying, death, and grief are often dismissed by magical thinking: they won’t happen to me.
My “3 Guys” were not part of any magic show; and each taught me about myself.
Who among us doesn’t have a version of “six months or less to live?” Aren’t we all future patients?]by