My friend Margie called me the other day, and something was amiss. Margie’s brother had just told her that their mother was not doing well, and that he was thinking about sending her to hospice.
It is never easy to hear this kind of news, and it is even harder when one is not expecting it. Margie knew that her mother was being treated for some medical issues, but had no idea that her mother might be at the end of her life.
Margie gave me a bit of background. Her mother had been treated with antibiotics for an ongoing medical situation, and now the bacteria had developed resistance to the medications. In addition, Margie’s mother had dementia, and so the situation was declining from all standpoints. The question now was how to proceed.
There is often a temptation, in situations such as this, to jump in and tell people how they should feel, what they should do, or what personal experiences this reminds us of. And if Margie had been consulting with me on how to best care for her mother, I might have asked questions and reviewed her choices with her.
But since Margie wasn’t consulting with me, the best response was to listen in a caring and supportive manner. And that is what I did. I listened, and once in a while said something to let her know that I was listening.
Equally important is what I didn’t do. I didn’t tell her what I think she should do or how she should feel. I didn’t speak philosophically about life and death or invoke religious ideas about how heaven is a good place etc.
Along the way, Margie cried a bit, and I ‘held in the silence’ with her, giving her as long as she needed to express her emotions. When she finished crying, she thanked me for letting her cry over the impending loss of her mom.
As the conversation continued, Margie seemed to be struggling with what would be the best way to care for her mom. My intuition at that point was that she might appreciate some input from me. I told her that I had an idea that she might find helpful and asked her if she wants to hear it. (Skilled communicators give advice only if they know it will be welcomed.)
When Margie said she wanted my input, I told her that there was a rabbi with expertise in end-of-life situations, with whom I had consulted when my father was failing. I asked if she wanted me to arrange a conversation. Margie said she didn’t, and I left it at that.
The next morning, Margie said that having slept on it, she in fact did want to speak with the rabbi. I arranged the connection; they spoke that evening.
Here is the bottom line: in situations of grief, we are often tempted to take charge of the process, to tell a person what they should be thinking, feeling, doing, etc. In my experience, this is a big mistake.
An important skill in the presence of grief is Silence. It is to listen and let the person speak and process, without making any attempt to run their process for them. And if it seems to me that the person may need help on a practical level, I offer it, as I did with Margie.