If you’ve read my blogs or seen me speak, you know that my life and work were highly influenced by the time I spent as a home care social worker at Hospice of Northern Virginia. The opportunity to sit by the bedside of someone at the end of their life was extraordinary and because of that experience, I’ve always looked at the world differently.
You don’t have to explore much of my past to see how I became interested in hospice care. I grew up in a rural area and attended more than twenty funerals before heading off to college. That’s what we did in small towns where we knew most of the people in our community. A couple of those funerals occurred during my junior year in high school when five people in my school died of illnesses or accidents. For a school of 600, that was quite a high number. Ironically, later that summer, I got a job mowing cemeteries and tended to the graves of many people I had once known. It was a dead-end job but someone had to do it (sorry).
In graduate school, a childhood friend died in a car accident and my nephew died of cancer. It was at that point in my life I realized that while I had been exposed to death through different experiences, I didn’t really understand how to cope. So I did what any reasonable person would do, I read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death and Dying, and got a job in hospice care.
After a decade of working in a hospice environment and experiencing subsequent losses as I’ve gotten older, what I’ve learned is that most of us aren’t comfortable talking about death, dying, or grief. In fact, we even use different words to describe death. When someone dies, we say that they have passed, passed on, passed away, left us, lost their life, bit the bullet, kicked the bucket, paid the piper, cashed in their chips, or bit the dust—even though we all know they died.
We seem not only uncomfortable with our own potential demise, we don’t particularly like it when others talks about the death of a loved one either. More than once, a grieving individual has told me that friends won’t even mention the deceased person’s name. Unfortunately, as a result of our own discomfort, we may miss the opportunity to comfort others. Yet, if we are open to the discussion, we may find that we benefit from the process as well. To achieve that, we must be comfortable with where these conversations might go.
Last year, I was in Traverse City, MI for a speaking engagement. Rather than take a cab to a local restaurant, I decided to grab a quick meal at the hotel bar. After I ordered, a man sat down next to me and we started talking. I learned that he was a salesman attending a conference in the same hotel. He then asked what I did for a living. This is always an awkward moment for me because I never know how to describe what I do. I’m a speaker, author, and humorist but that sounds a bit pompous. Yet, I don’t want to take up too much time explaining the mechanics of it all. And often, I feel like people might look at me as if I’m Chris Farley’s motivational speaker character from Saturday Night Live. For the record, I currently live in a house by the woods—not in a van by the river. Nonetheless, I explained that I was a former hospice social worker turned speaker and humorist.
He said, “Oh. I know about hospice. We used hospice for my dad…and my son.”
My death antennae immediately went up. The man was about forty years old so having a father in hospice care was not that unusual. But, at his age, having a son who needed hospice care was both atypical and heartbreaking.
I said, “I’m curious about your son. What happened?”
He explained that two years earlier, his twelve year-old son had died of a glioblastoma (brain tumor). He showed me pictures of his son and explained the course of the illness. And while he was comfortable discussing the experience, he admitted that he was still struggling with the loss. I listened to his story and then shared some information about the benefits of bereavement groups and counseling. I explained how this kind of loss makes us feel out of sync with others because the rest of the world keeps on going while we feel stuck in an emotional abyss. That being said, I tried to reassure him that, based on my work with other bereaved individuals, his reactions were very normal.
He seemed relieved to know that he wasn’t going crazy and even showed interest in joining a support group when he got back home. I was grateful that I could be of some assistance.
The interesting thing about that conversation was that I felt I had been given a great gift—to be able to sit with this man as he described his discomfort. I didn’t have to take on his pain nor did I need to fix it. I simply needed to listen as he described the challenges he was experiencing. Obviously, as a hospice social worker, I was comfortable in this role. But personally, I could also relate to him because two of my family members had died of brain tumors. Ultimately, perhaps, the real connection we had was knowing that death is a universal human experience that we can all understand.
As they say, none of us will get out of this world alive. It’s inevitable that we and the people around us will die. And while it’s not such a pleasant thing to discuss, those who have experienced a loss usually want to talk about it. We give people a great gift when we can get past our own discomfort and allow them to talk about what they are going through. In those moments true human connections occur. And that’s what life and depth are all about.