When Words Fail

Just like I do 10 or 15 times on days I visit the hospital, I pushed the elevator button, and as the door opened and I stepped in, I made eye contact with the folks already there and asked, “How’s your day going?”

Usually there’s just some brief chit-chat about whatever, then the ride’s over for some of us, and we go about our business.

But this time, a woman I’d seen around the hospital for weeks met my eyes and said, “Not so good.  I lost my husband this morning.  We’re going up to the room to pick up my things.”

Words failed me.  And for good reason.  There was absolutely nothing I could say to help.  I knew it.  And she knew it.  So except for saying, “I’m sorry,” I said nothing.

We might tend to think this was a failed human interaction.  But I’d suggest to you that it wasn’t.

This woman, overwhelmed with her loss, chose to tell me about it.  Instead of just saying, “Okay.”

And as a result I’ve thought and prayed about her often since that day a few weeks ago.

We shared a few moments of life together.  And it had meaning.

  1. There’s that eye contact thing again…

    “We might tend to think this was a failed human interaction. But I’d suggest to you that it wasn’t…” I find this, and what followed, encouraging.

    Amy VanHuisen’s last blog post..3 Reasons Sudden Loss Hits Us So Hard

  2. Jim Hughes says:

    Yep! We keep working on that don’t we?

  3. Responding to this isn’t easy. Most of us aren’t taught how to deal with death, how we can give comfort. As a stranger, that you acknowledged her loss was good. Just out of curiosity, did anyone else on the elevator respond?

  4. Jim Hughes says:

    When I got on the elevator, it was just her and two relatives/friends. Then one floor up part of the medical team that had been caring for her husband got on the elevator, and they acknowledged her loss. Certainly an awkward time for everyone — but a time when everyone was doing the best they could. Thanks for the comment, Renee!

  5. Renee Michaels says:

    I was in a caretaking position where everyone knew the patient was in the process of dying. We had shared some very good conversations in the preceding weeks but I knew that this was the last day I was going to see him. He was slipping into that final sleep so I said my last goodbye, wishing him a safe journey (he wasn’t religious), much love, told him how much I enjoyed his company & gave him a hug. But as you noted, responding to the living, who are feeling the pain of their loss, is much more difficult and comforting words don’t come as easily.

    Maybe this is a topic for you to explore and possibly write a book about. We all need guidance in this area!

  6. Jim Hughes says:

    Sounds like you were a great, compassionate caregiver. And you make an important point: it’s usually much easier to know what to say to the one who is dying than it is to those who will live on. Don’t know about the book thing. The more I learn and experience, they more I learn that about the only words that are helpful are “I care,” and “I’m sorry for your loss.” Telling stories about the person is also often comforting and helpful in keeping the memory of the person who has passed alive. But being present is huge, as is listening. Thanks for the conversation on this post!

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