The Phone Call

Man on beach

Now, less than a year after the initial cancer diagnosis, he was alone.

In my work with bereavement at hospice, I call grievers after a loved one’s death. With many of them, I leave messages.

While I repeat certain phrases and information, I have no script. Every message is unique, for that person. Though it infrequently happens, I hope my recorded message might prompt the “bereaved” to consider exploring and using our resources.

When someone answers, the conversations can be brief. Some calls drive me batty because the person could be driving, at work, or hurrying out the door for an appointment. He or she explains, “I can’t talk now.” Since I’m far, far from being a perfect human being, I often silently grumble: Then why’d you even answer? I have a love/hate relationship with cell phones and their ability to be with us anywhere we are.

One of my favorite can’t-talk-now calls was a fellow on the verge of “winning big” at a local Native American casino. I introduced myself while a soundtrack of electronic beeps and crowd noise ebbed and flowed. What was more important, playing the slots or speaking with the guy from hospice? Easy answer, eh?

Whether or not they are gambling or just too busy, we will try to contact them again.

Phone calls are not the best way to help someone during their grief.

People can screen calls and never answer.

During this pandemic, I’m working at home. Unlike my regular office phone, my caller ID doesn’t declare it’s hospice. Have I become another odd number to avoid?

Some simply won’t answer any call. Usually, I can leave a message, but a voice mailbox can be full or requires a password. Phones are modern moats around the castles of our lives.

When hospice phones—especially after your loved one’s death—it’s easy to say you’re busy when you’re not.

An essential part of counseling includes observing body language; phones eliminate nearly everything except voices and silence. But sometimes, a phone call will be the only option for offering support. Right now, with the shelter-in restrictions because of Covid-19, phone calls have become even more important.

Not long ago, I talked to a seventy-something husband grieving his wife’s death. They’d been married for thirty years. For her, she’d married late and it was her first and only marriage. It was his second marriage. They were, he said, soul mates.


He told me about the small things.

How they held hands every day.

How they finished each other’s sentences.

How they both enjoyed burned bacon. (See, everybody is different!)

As awful as his first marriage was, it had given him two kids that loved him and they grew to love his second wife. She fit perfectly into his blended family.

Now, less than a year after the initial cancer diagnosis, he was alone.

His kids, with their own responsibilities and their own children and their own joys and disappointments, lived out-of-state. Life that had once been filled with laughter and plans now seemed emptier than the house. And the house felt—was—real empty.

I knew before contacting him that he’d seen one of our grief counselors online for a Zoom session . . . once. He mentioned that appointment. “I was ashamed. I sobbed the whole time. What’s the point of crying non-stop and having some young person that doesn’t know nothing stare at you?”

My counseling colleague is young. But she is also sensitive, thoughtful, and compassionate. If the grieving, stubborn husband tried counseling more than once, he might discover real and lasting help. But I wasn’t going to disagree with him or persuade him to reconsider. He already spent most of his waking, fitful hours criticizing himself. He didn’t need me to add to his self-imposed burdens.

He cried on the phone. He hated to cry. He hated feeling out-of-control.

He despised friends that asked, “Isn’t it time to be over this by now?” His wife had died four months ago. They started their questions a month after her death.

I told him that was like telling someone to stand and get going after they’d busted a leg several miles from home. Healing takes time. In many cases, bones mend and you hardly recall the old injury. But when it’s your soul that breaks, you never fully heal. And when it’s your soul mate that has died, you spend the rest of your life limping.

Will a griever get better? Sure.

Will the emotional (and, yes, physical) pain decrease? Sure.

But right now, he said, “I cry all the time and my stomach hurts*. And most of the time,” he continued, “when I think I should get out of the house or take a walk with a friend, I don’t want to.”

I told him that was normal, but it will never feel normal. I told him I wished there were magic words to settle his stomach* or stop his mind from replaying the last weeks of his wife’s life and wondering how he could’ve done something better or different.

He cried on the phone again. How he hated to cry.

After a pause, he repeated that he wouldn’t do counseling. And forget support groups. He really didn’t want to talk with anyone. He hated to talk.

And so, we kept talking.

Finally, we said goodbye.

Did I help him?

Maybe. But I know he is hurting, and that he hates crying and can’t stop crying. I suspect his healing from his grief will continue as long as he is breathing.

In a month or so, we will call him again.

Grief causes some of the hardest, most painful feelings ever experienced. I believe everyone needs help as they grieve.

(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.)

*I also mentioned seeing his doctor. So often, when caring for a dying loved one, caregivers ignore their aches and ailments. His stomach hurting—or the body in general hurting—during the most intense grief is not surprising. But it may also indicate a medical problem. It’s always a good idea to check with a physician.

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  1. I love you little brother! This a tear-maker….but maybe it’s my grief kicking in or your way with words…..or both.

  2. This was oddly comforting, Larry. You are one of the greats. I wish everyone who needed a Hospice chaplain had you. You are a natural. Thanks for your thoughts tonight. Pat

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