Sacred Silence & Hospice

SilenceBefore meeting my new patient, I admired her Ford Mustang. The well-kept red convertible was parked on the street, by her brother’s driveway.

The license plate frame declared: Fly Away!

While I didn’t know for sure it was her car on that first visit, the frame’s message was a solid clue. Based on the medical charts I’d scanned, she was a flight attendant in her early forties.

This was years ago when I was a hospice chaplain. I recollect visiting her a half-dozen times. From our first awkward handshake to the final time I sat beside her hospital bed in her brother’s living room, our patient-chaplain relationship strengthened. I sensed that she learned to trust me. I certainly learned from her as she continued living and loving while cancer recklessly attacked her body. Even at my last visit, her short gray-blonde hair was stylish. Her make-up, aided by her sister-in-law, was impeccable.

In all of our time together, she never spoke one word to me.

Though the cancer spread across her once-athletic body, it had started in her throat. Long before entering hospice, she’d the lost the ability to speak.

+     +     +

I currently spend hours at hospice on the phone. According to my highfaluting title, I am a Bereavement Support Specialist and do what other staff and volunteers in other hospices do: talk with people after a loved one’s death. Part of the mandated requirement for a hospice is to support the grieving. Every hospice will fulfill that mandate in different ways. It may mean one or two letters are mailed to families after the death. Or—like the hospice where I work—monthly letters arrive until after the first anniversary of the death. Some hospices make a single after-the-death phone call. Others make multiple calls.

I do a lot of calling.

I talk, trying to gauge how folks are doing, making sure they know about our additional resources for grief support. On the phone, long minutes pass with me only muttering, “I see” or “Really.” I want them to know I’m paying attention, but don’t want to interrupt their stories or worries. Most calls are brief. A few of the hundreds of calls I make every month cause me to feel that something I said, or how I listened, helped a hurting person find a smidgen of hope in their day.

I enjoy what I do. (Except for the charting required after a call!) I have, as my parents told me, “the gift of gab.” By background I am a pastor and spent years preaching, striving to keep people’s attention for at least a portion of a twenty-minute sermon. In churches I served, there was also endless phoning: cajoling folks to serve on committees, work with the youth, or teach Sunday school. Such an opportunity for them!

Talk on, Larry!

And I do. After politely asking a wounded, fragile person if this is a good time to talk, I fulfill the Medicare mandate to comfort grieving family and friends.

+     +     +

The red Mustang’s owner never said a word.

Our first encounter was awkward with a capital A. I was a stranger. I babbled. I struggled to ask questions that allowed her to shake her head “No” or to nod “Yes.” Her doting brother, who had lovingly forced her to move in with his family when the cancer made living alone impossible, hovered in the background. He didn’t want some fool of a hospice chaplain to do anything to disturb her. This was his little sister. This was one of the last parts of his family that shared his childhood memories.

With each visit, I babbled less and focused on posing simple yes/no based questions.

We prayed.

We held hands.

We made lots of eye contact. There were stretches of silence. Initially, it felt uncomfortable. Eventually, it felt sacred.

She had a million dollar smile. She forgave my mistakes, fumbling questions, and apologies. She never saw my tears . . . though after leaving, passing by her red convertible as it gathered more dust every week, I would weep.

She died less than two months after our first visit. Her brother buried her ashes in a spot with a view of the Pacific. “She loved the ocean more than flying,” he had once said to me.

+     +     +

Professionally, I understand the importance of words. Even my simple “Oh, really” contains the power to gently remind a person at the other end of the phone that I am still there, still listening.

But I also know the power of silence. Of touch. Of eye contact. Of shared smiles.

I know some people resist spending time with a loved one who is dying or grieving because they don’t know what to say. So I say, say nothing.

Enter the room. Enter their heart. Enter into their day and let them know by a touch, by a nod, by a smile, by a tear, that you are there.

And so are they.

(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.)

Image from here.

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