Redhead, nurse, sister, daughter, aunt, newly-ex-wife, sucker for lost animals, currently owned by Percy the cat and Spencer the dog. In the middle of some major changes–trying to figure out what I want so I can figure out how to get there.

This morning I met my Poppa and sister for breakfast.  At some point the topic turned to how to help people who are going through something traumatic. We had mentioned a friend whose husband died after a short illness at a very young age.  My sister remembered calling her at the hospital and asking what she needed.  The friend stated she wasn’t up to visitors, and left it at that.  Since we have had some experience, my sister knew to be more persistent.  My ex-husband recently went to visit a friend who was in a hospice facility–knowing it would likely be the last time he saw her.  He wanted to know what to say.

Hopefully, none of you will be faced with either of these situations any time soon, but here are some thoughts about what you can do when it really seems there is nothing to be done.

When someone is in hospice, they are way beyond you in where they are in accepting what is going to happen soon.  If you are going to visit “one more time,” they know that as well as you do.  Nothing you can say will make things better, so there is absolutely no “right” thing to say.  Showing up at all takes more courage than many people have.  It is okay to reminisce about old times–this lets them know they are important to you and that they will be missed.  It is okay to ask them how they are feeling–even though they are dying, there may be things you can do to help…if their pillow looks crooked, offer to turn it over…if they are allowed, give them something to drink…ask if they want to talk or just to be–hold their hand, many people will have been afraid to do this simple act of kindness and humanity.  If they are the praying type–offer to pray with them.  If they are not, perhaps just wish them a safe journey.  You cannot change the facts of the matter.  Walking in the room will be the most important thing you do.  The rest is just details.

When someone has family in the hospital (either sick or dying), they probably don’t have any idea what they need or want.  If you just ask in general, you are likely to get little response.  However, there are many things you can do.  Imagine you left your house unexpectedly and do not know when you will return.  You might need laundry done.  You might need a toothbrush or a hairbrush or even deodorant.  Change and one dollar bills for the vending machines will be greatly appreciated–or a care package of snacks.  Offer to babysit the kids–even if the babysitting means just taking them outside to the hospital grounds to stretch their legs.  Pets need feeding, trash needs to be taken out.  If there is going to be a funeral, it is quite possible that a suit or dress needs to be dry cleaned.  If there are children involved, they may very well not even have a suit that fits them–offer to shop with them. When Mother died, one of her friends gave each of us a one-hundred dollar bill.  She didn’t know what we needed, but she knew we needed something.  My sister and I both used the money to buy dreses for the funeral.  Choose one of these specific things and offer to do them.  They are small things, but they each represent something to be checked off a list that is likely very long and overwhelming.  It is hard for a person “in crisis” to answer a vague (though very genuine) offer–the more specific you can be–the better.

In short, there isn’t anything in the world that you can do to make things okay again, but there are many things you can do to make the days a bit easier.  Anything else that I may have missed?  Any other ideas?

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Comments on: "What to do when there isn’t really an answer" (4)

  1. Your Sister said:

    Comfort food. Hair cuts for children. CD player. Make phone calls/emails to a designated group of people so that grieving person won’t have to. Write a letter talking about good memories.

    I hate you, you made me cry AGAIN.

  2. You, dear sistern, are the one who suggested this be my topic today. It’s on you.

  3. Wow, what an incredibly helpful post. I am saving this for the day that I may need it for reference, though I hope it’s not a time that comes anytime soon.

  4. Sally Kolks said:

    Loved this post. I have unfortunately been on the receiving end twice. When my brother and my niece died it was amazing the generosity and kindness people showed me and my family. Friends of mine provided food and soft drinks for my family at the funeral home during the visitation. My brother and sister-in-law could quickly have a bite to eat and drink something. It was so thoughtful. Another friend sent her cleaning lady over to clean their house and to do errands. You are right as usual no small act goes unnoticed. I get tears in my eyes when I think of the kind words and calls that I got from people during these difficult times.

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