He was dressed for success.
His suit was charcoal gray, shirt the blue of a perfect spring sky, both complimented by an elegant tie. Since the gentleman had just entered the room of a noon-time support group for those 55-and-over, I suspected he was coming from work.
Or was he retired and always wore his Sunday best? My father, well into his eighties, frequently sported a button-down shirt and matching tie. Until dementia stole nearly everything about Dad, he might add a jacket to complete the look. Office bound or collecting pensions, some guys like to maintain appearances.
I work at a hospice. One of my responsibilities is to lead grief support groups. The dapper man had arrived at a group’s first session for those now confronting life after the death of a spouse.
As usual, women outnumbered the men. In our culture, any support group is less appealing than a colonoscopy for the testosterone side of the aisle. Yes, that has changed. Every generation pushes the proverbial envelope in different ways and more men are more open to sharing feelings. But two decades into the 21st century, guys often prefer projects over sharing.
But he was there, one of several men in a group of about a dozen participants.
I keep everything simple in the first session. We review group guidelines and confirm essential information. The ice-breaker questions—for these are strangers in a strange room—are non-threatening, and include:
- Where were you raised?
- What was one of your first jobs?
Eventually, after new group members settle into chairs, sign confidentiality agreements, and are assured they can call or email me with any future concerns, we get to a tough question.
What was the name of your loved one who died?
With these folks, like many of the groups I’ve led for those struggling with the death of their spouse/partner, the loss occurred several months before. Though there are exceptions, the majority of participants have not yet experienced a full year since a beloved’s death.
Saying the name is hard.
There are tears.
Staring at the floor.
Since I keep Kleenex boxes close, the name is often spoken before or after a quick reach for tissues. I’ve had some in prior groups pass when they get to the “name question.” No pressure. No problem. Speaking the name can be impossible. Convincing King Kong to get off the Empire State Building would be easier.
You don’t think so?
I recall one fellow—in nearly every session from first to last—that declared a version of: nobody understands what we’re going through. After he’d said that a fifth or tenth time, I stole a glance to see if any in the group had wearied of his announcements. No one ever seemed irked. Unless you have faced the death of the woman or man that you shared decades of your life with, you won’t grasp the depths of the anguish. There is unsettledness, sadness, too-much-eating, not-enough-eating, sleepless nights, exhausted days, and a lack of concentration that will haunt the weeks and months (and yes, years) that follow.
Saying the name aloud can be frightening.
But I demanded more. Toward the first session’s end, I have them respond to a form asking for their expectations about the group. I keep the questions brief and clear. I remind them they don’t have to respond in complete sentences. Misspelled words are fine. I am not grading them!
The man with the impeccable suit stared at the piece of paper and muttered, “I don’t know how to answer these questions.”
Trust me, they are simple. And they are not.
He was numb. Hurting. He was adrift in an ocean of strange feelings and devastating sorrow. He held a piece of paper with easy-to-understand English words. There was ink on it. The printed sentences were in large fonts with ample room for comments. When he said he had no idea what to write, none of the participants rolled their eyes or shook their heads. Every stranger present believed him.
It doesn’t matter who you are. You may be alert and nattily attired or so tired, you can’t even shed your jammies. Old or young. Poor or rich. Male or female. A liberal feminist or a redneck conservative. Your beloved’s death was an earthquake.
And the aftershocks keep coming.
When the man in the snazzy suit handed me his (mostly blank) written expectations, I told him it was okay. I couldn’t guarantee being in this group would help his healing. I didn’t want to voice any worn-out platitudes that wouldn’t be true anyway. I just hoped, in his numbness and fear, in his awful new world where he was now more alone than he’d ever been in his life, that he would risk coming back next week for the next session.
Any healing that may happen with grief is often about showing up the next day. Or minute.
Suits and ties are optional.
Larry Patten is a writer and retired minister, currently working part-time at a hospice in California. He maintains larrypatten.com and www.hospice-matters.com. His new book, A Companion for the Hospice Journey, will be available on April 1, 2019.