Just after I leave the church and step into the sparkling sunlight on the way to my car, a woman I hadn’t noticed before comes up to me. A recent widow, she speaks, at first hesitantly, about her faith not helping her when she needs it most. It has been a year since her husband died, and she finds things are getting worse, not better. She had to listen just last week to one well-meaning church member who had told her with assurance it was God’s will, and that her husband was better off now, at last out of his pain.
I have had this experience many times now, over the year, mostly in Protestant and Catholic churches around Washington, D.C., where I talk about preparing for death as the last stage of our lives—so often, in fact, that several people in my hospice, where I have volunteered for 25 years, call me “Churchman.” Usually I meet with the social action committee or the missions board or the community outreach women’s guild. Sometimes it is the church powers-that-be. This Sunday morning, as happens very occasionally, I give the sermon in a Presbyterian church.
My topic is hospice as a special way of providing palliative care for those who can no longer be helped by the miracles of modern medicine. With these listeners, I can talk as well about the spiritual aspects of death and dying. It is a largely captive audience, but I regret that there is no opportunity from the pulpit for the kind of give-and-take I need to find out what people are really concerned about. Afterward, the minister introduces me around at the coffee hour. We engage in pleasant chit-chat, mostly on subjects other than death.
I used to imagine it was a lot easier for a church congregation to digest my message than for a secular group. The written and spoken credos of Christian churches usually proclaim that there is a better place you go to after death, a sure and certain salvation and, at the end, eternal peace, rest and joy.
So what do I tell the woman in the parking lot, who must assume I am some sort of authority—obviously, since I was just up there speaking from the pulpit? I try to come up with something useful to say. But I think to myself that I’m not the right person, even though I was the sermon-deliverer for today, to talk to her about the importance of religious faith—at least not in the traditional definition of that word. I am here today, however—as a guest on other people’s turf—not to discuss our respective theologies, but to try to be of service. And after 10 minutes of quiet conversation in the parking lot—actually, just a few words of comfort from me framing some attentive listening to her doubts and fears, she says she feels a little better, thanks me and seems to be smiling (or is that my wishful thinking?) as she walks away.
More often, I make bereavement calls, a different kind of one-on-one ministry. I phone the survivors, who daily face their recent losses with varying degrees of numbness, emotional pain and fear. Most tell me they’re doing okay, as well as can be expected. Usually, after probing a bit to see what’s behind the brave words, I wish them well on their journey.
But sometimes after death, after the condolences and casseroles have come and gone, mourners want to talk further with me. Perhaps the rest of the world expects them to get on with life too soon. Even their friends and family members may not want to dwell on their grief, or on the death that caused it—perhaps because of fears about their own mortality.
I am not supposed to offer advice. I’m given just phone numbers and a few other facts about people who are grieving “normally.” Hospice social workers are charged with counseling the rest; or, in cases of prolonged or particularly unresolved grieving, they may refer the mourners to outside professionals.
Rather, I am supposed to listen, one hopes with care, compassion and intelligence, to those thoughts and fears the bereaved person may be reluctant to share with most others; about anger, doubts and “if onlys.” About denial, depression, changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Once in a while, about suicidal thoughts—to which I immediately alert the social worker; or, if need be, I call 911.
But usually there is nothing that dramatic. Instead, just listening more than talking, with occasional gentle feedback for the bereaved—for a year or so after the patient’s death—to help them get through the first anniversary of that memorable date. To help them get to a place where they can think of the spouse, parent or child who died, with thoughts not completely of pain. To assist them in their task of incorporating in their hearts and brains the whole memory, the sum of all the sadness and joys, of that person.
Sometimes I steer grievers to our structured support groups. But many prefer to continue one-on-one anonymous phone talks with me. A spouse frets that her husband’s casket was left closed before the funeral service. Or left open. A 70-year old man asks my advice on whether he should take up his daughter’s invitation to move in with her and her husband in Texas. Or go to a retirement community. Or just stay put for a while. I summarize the options I’m hearing, and feed them back so he can mull them over. I suggest he not make a decision too quickly.
A friend of mine once asked me what qualified me for this work. Her tone of voice suggested some doubts as to my suitability—whether I’d really be a sympathetic ear. I imagine her concerns were little allayed by the description of my training courses and my readings, about my supervision by a professional social worker with appropriate degrees, and particularly by my possibly glib-sounding suggestion that my main qualification for bereavement listening was the sum of my life’s experience.
I too have wondered what makes me feel qualified to sit, almost as in a confessional, lacking the right academic degrees, and hear the secret fears and concerns of those in bereavement. Of those who worry about things they or someone else might have done better, or faster. Of those uncertain about the purpose of their lives, often not ready to move on with those lives at the pace suggested by friends and relatives—who sincerely counsel them, for their own good, not to wallow in grief, not to dwell unduly on the past. Of those who feel guilt today about the relief initially felt when their loved one’s pain and suffering was finally lifted by death.
And I have wondered why I persevere in listening to talk of death, and of the great losses people have suffered. I am aware of my need to be a do-gooder, a helper, my need for a spiritual vocation, for ego satisfaction—in part because I decided long ago to be a manager in a big organization and not, unlike my wife, a professional caregiver.
But there is more to it than that. More questions. Will listening to the concerns and fears of mourners better prepare me to acknowledge and feel my griefs over deaths in my own family? To face better the great unknown? The faint glimmers, at best, of what really happens at the end of our physical life, our mortal consciousness?
And, of course, to grieve as well over life’s lesser events—time’s ravages on my wife and me, our aging parents, disappointment over some of our earlier hopes for our five children and numerous other normal events of life. Can I can learn better how to deal with these happenings from those who open a part of their soul to me?
Each of us has, I believe, buried in our being a deep dark hole, which we try to fill, or conceal from ourselves, with things and people. Or firm or not-so-firm securities about heaven and the hereafter. Perhaps that hole is really our essential loneliness. That loneliness may indeed be the human condition—relieved, if we’re fortunate, by God’s grace. Does our loneliness and isolation become more real and visible in our last days on earth?
Perhaps I still work for my hospice because I have more to learn there, things that will ease my own inevitable fear of pain and of letting go. More to learn from those whose grief and concerns I try to assuage. More to appreciate in those sudden and fleeting communions that sometimes come to pass between us. I doubt I will ever know why for certain. But I plan to keep on listening.