Hospice, Grief, and the Well-Dressed Guy

He was dressed for success.

His suit was charcoal gray, the shirt the color of a spring sky, and the tie was snappy. The shoes were shined into mirrors. I figured, since this was my hospice’s grief support group that met mid-day (for those 55 and over), that he was coming from work.

Or maybe the fellow was retired and chose to wear his “Sunday best.” My father, long after his final days of full-time work, frequently donned a nice shirt and cinched up one of the ties he’d worn years before. Until his cruel dementia stole nearly everything about him, Dad might add a sports jacket or color-coordinated sweater to complete the look.

Some guys, office bound or happily retired, like to maintain appearances.

My new group member did.

It was the first session.

As usual, there were more women than men. In our culture, grief groups are nearly as appealing as a colonoscopy for the testosterone side of the aisle. Men don’t like to converse about emotions. Oh yes, that has changed. Every generation pushes and pulls the proverbial envelope in different ways and a lot of men nowadays are more open to sharing their feelings. You go, guys! But, in general, nearly two decades into the 21st century, men prefer projects and goals over talking and revealing.

But he was there.


One of several guys.

One of a new group of ten or so folks.

I keep everything simple in the first session. There are forms to complete. We review group guidelines and confirm essential information. For the ice-breaker questions—for these are strangers in a strange room—I make sure they are non-threatening. Where were you raised? What was one of your first jobs? (Boring stuff, eh?)

But eventually, as the first gathering of a new group settles into their chairs, and signs confidentiality agreements, and is assured they can call or email me with comments or concerns, we get to a tough question:

What was the name of your loved one who died?

With these folks, like many of the groups I’ve led for those struggling with the death of their spouse/partner, the loss occurred several months before. Or maybe it was last winter or the prior summer. Though there are exceptions, the majority of participants have not yet had a full year “under their belts” since their beloved died.

Saying the name is hard.

There are tears.

Long pauses.

Staring at the floor.

Since I keep Kleenex boxes close, the name is spoken before or after a quick reach for more tissue. I’ve had some in prior groups pass when they get to the “name question.” No pressure. No problem. Speaking the name can be impossible. Scaling Everest would be easier.

You don’t think so?

I recall one fellow—in the majority of the twelve sessions—that declared a version of: Others don’t understand what we’re going through. After he’d said that a bunch of times, I stole a glance to see if any in the group had wearied of his repetitive announcement. No one ever looked irked. He spoke the truth. Unless you have faced the death of the woman or man you have shared decades of your life with, you won’t understand the depths of the anguish. There is unsettledness, sadness, too-much-eating, not-enough-eating, sleepless nights, exhausted days, and a lack of concentration that will haunt the weeks and months (and yes, years) that follow.

Saying the name can be intimidating. Or frightening. Or . . .

But I demanded more. Toward the end of the first session, I have them respond to a simple—there’s that dangerous word again—questionnaire asking for their expectations. I have been diligent, over the years, to keep the questions brief and clear. I also remind them they don’t have to give responses in complete sentences. Misspelled words are fine. No one is grading anything!

The man with the impeccable suit, with the matching socks and the wrinkle-free shirt, stared at the piece of paper and muttered, “I don’t know how to answer these questions.”

Again, trust me, they are simple.

And they are not.

He was numb. Hurting. If not lost at sea, he was lost in an ocean of oppressive feelings and devastating sorrow. He held a piece of paper with easy-to-understand English words. There was ink on it. The printed sentences were in large fonts with ample room for comments. When he quietly announced he had no idea how to respond, not one person in the group of strangers rolled their eyes or cleared their throats or shook their heads. Every stranger present believed him.

It doesn’t matter who or what you are. You may be alert and nattily attired or so tired, you can’t even shed your jammies. Old or young. Poor or rich. Male or female. Gay or straight. A liberal feminist or a redneck conservative. You beloved’s death was an earthquake.

And the aftershocks keep coming.

When the man in the snazzy suit handed me his written expectations, I told him that it was okay. I couldn’t guarantee being in this group would help his healing. I didn’t want to voice any worn-out platitudes that wouldn’t be true anyway. I just hoped, in his numbness and fear, in his awful new world where he was now more alone than he’d ever been in his life, that he would risk coming back next week for the next session.

He did.

Any healing that may happen with grief is often about showing up the next day. Or minute.

Suits and ties are optional.

(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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    • Of course, the gentleman in the essay is just a fictional, composite “character.” But, if he is a little like you, Mark, I hope some of my words were a little helpful . . . encouraging . . . thought-provoking. Take care!

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