Friday, April 30, 2010
Please don't say "Are you Okay?"
Today I spent the day with a family who had to make a tough decision; to take their husband and father off of life support.
The son was only 15 years old. He had a back pack with a skate board attached. He had on Vans. He looked every bit a 15 year old, but looked so weary. He was polite and was holding together as best as he could. Occasionally a tear would fall, and you could see that he was crushed. He had hoped the outcome would have been better for his dad. His dad is his best friend.
He held it together until a question was asked to him over and over again by every visitor and everyone that called him on his ever ringing iPhone.
That question? "Are you okay?"
He almost threw the phone at one point. His mother could understand, she had been asked the same question all day long as well.
"Why does everyone ask me that? My husband is going to die soon. How could I possibly be okay?"
I told her that people generally do not know what to say. That they typically will ask that question, say "I'm so very sorry" or ask if there is anything that they can do.
"Can they bring my husband back to me", she asked.
I could understand her anguish.
I told her and her son that there is no way to describe this other than to say that it really sucks. There are no words to make it better. That the patient was a good man who is dying way too soon. That it will be tough. That we are here to offer support and help them navigate through the nightmare that has engulfed their lives.
She said I was the first person to understand. Well, me and the Hospice Social Worker that was equally as honest, better than me quite frankly. I so admire the social workers.
We all try to do our best. I am fortunate in that I am a trained professional and this is my job. Otherwise, I would probably be asking them if they were okay, too.
I think that when we are with people going through a life crisis like this, that we need to think about how we would feel. How we would want others to respond to us.
If we cannot think of anything to say, then perhaps we can just add that "I am thinking of you right now. I cannot imagine what you are going through. I want to help, but I am not sure what to do or say. I know that this is incredibly hard for you. I am here for you."
Or you can say that this simply sucks.
Because it does.
And leave it at that.
The bereaved have a lot of things swirling through their heads. They are numb at times, angry at times, wanting this to just be over at times and then feeling guilty because they want it just to be over at times.
They want people to care, but they hate all the intrusion. They want to cry, but feel that if they start to cry, they will never stop. They want to laugh at a joke or get a break, but then feel guilty that they are enjoying themselves, even briefly, while their loved one is dying.
It is really hard to be a survivor.
So, be patient with them. Love them even if they don't seem to notice that you are there. They know. Be there for them after it is all over, when the reality of the loss really hits. They need you more then. And be there on special occasions and certainly at the 1 year anniversary of the death.
Being there can be as simple as a handwritten note, a card that says I am thinking of you, a visit or some small token.
Often, the bereaved feel abandoned after their loved one dies. Or forgotten.
Don't abandon them. Don't forget.
But don't ask them if they are okay. They are certainly not okay.
And never really will be 100% okay again.
A death leaves a hole that fills over time, but never truly goes away.