Walking with those who greive

Last night, when I was driving home after a long day, I was crafting the opening sentence for this morning’s journal entry in my mind. I thought I would begin it this way: “I don’t know exactly when it became easy for me to deliver the sad news of a death of a loved one to a family.”

Then I thought, “The reason I don’t know is that it has never become easy.” I’ve been a minister for over 40 years and it is still as difficult and gut-wrenching as it was the first time I was called upon to deliver such awe-awe-filled news. What has changed, slowly, over the years, is that I am no longer afraid.

I was taking tickets for the annual Sheriff’s Christmas Party, hosted by the Sheriff’s Chaplains, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I asked another chaplain to take over for me and slipped into the hallway to take the call because it was from a colleague who works for a non-non-profit in our town. Within a few minutes, I was speaking on a speaker phone to an energy meeting of some of the staff of the agency giving them some advice on how to go about the process of delivering a death notice to some of the people served by their agency. Only after the phone conversation was ended, did it strike me as a bit strange that I have somehow become one of the people to whom others in our town turn when faced with the difficult task of informing others that a death has occurred. How did it happen that I became the one they call?

Part of it is age and experience. I’ve ben around this town for more than 23 years. I’ve been consulting with this particular agency for more than 20 years. I know the staff well. I’ve watched their children grow up and head off to college. I’ve been to retirement parties and helped orient new staff members to the work of the agency. I’m old enough to be the grandfather of some of the newer employees. I’ve been around the block so to speak. I’ve got the white hair, slumping chest and medicare card to prove it.

The ideas I shared with those in the meeting yesterday were basic. The information of a death of a loved one is necessary information. It needs to be communicated in a timely manner and is best communicated face to face. You go to those who are involved and you tell them what has happened as simply and as directly as possible. You get the news out as quickly as possible. Don’t make the news of the death a punchline in a long story. As soon as the other person knows you are talking about their loved one they want to know whether or not their loved one is OK. Delaying the news is cruel torture. Do not use euphemisms. Do not be afraid to say the word “dead.” There are occasions where “passed on” or “no longer with us” can be reasonable ways to speak, but not at the point of first delivering the news. Do not go into excessive detail. Get the basic news before the briefing person and allow them to direct the conversation with their response.

It is essential that the bearer of the news establish him or herself as a source of truth. Grieving people need others whom they can trust. They need a source of accurate information.

Delay is to be avoided. With the speed of social media, the news will come out very quickly. Learning of the death of a loved one through a rumor or a Facebook post is not the right way to receive that news. Once you know that you have to deliver the news, go now.

Another thing that I say when speaking of delivering data notifications is that you can trust people with their grief. Don’t be afraid of tears or even a loss of control. I usually ask people to sit down to receive the news simply because it is less distance to fall if their muscles temporarily fail them. If a person doe fall to the floor, that is a safe place. They won’t hurt themselves further once they make it to the floor. They may cry or even scream, but that will pass. Within a few minutes, calm will return. Don’t be afraid to just sit quietly while the initial shock passes.

People who are not expecting the death of a loved one will be in shock. They aren’t going to remember the details of what you say. Deliver the essential news, but don’t deliver a lot of advice. Information about how to plan a funeral or notify relatives can wait for a little while. Limit yourself to the essential news and allow time for grief.

I’ve been on notification calls that take a couple of hours, but that is rare. Most of the time 15 or 20 minutes are invested in the initial visit and after that amount of time, the community starts to get in motion. A neighbor arrives with an offer of support. A family member comes with a hug. The grieving person needs to make a phone call. The natural support systems become evident. I try to never get in the way of those who come to lend assistance. Sometimes I offer to return later or to check in on the grieving person the next day.

What age and experience has taught me is that grief is a daily occurrence in our community. It is a natural part of living with other people I may not be involved, but there is always someone wrestling deeply with the pain of loss. Grief is a natural process and has as an essential element love. We grieve because we have loved. And love is a good thing. And love does not die. The relationship is not over when the news of the death is delivered. Life goes on and the gift of life triumphs.

I am honored to walk alongside those who are grieving, but, no, this hasn’t gotten easy.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!