Phoning the Bereaved

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene of grief support, how to comfort someone who is mourning.A stranger’s voice says hello. I gulp, hug the phone closer, and manage to squeak out, “Hi, this is Robin, a Hospicare bereavement-call volunteer. Is this an okay-time to talk?” The stranger usually softens at this. Either from warm memories of how Hospicare treated their family during dark times, or maybe they sense my anxiety and want to help me out. For me, talking to strangers is scary enough face to face. But phoning some unknown person, to see how they’re doing after the love of their life has died—that takes all my courage. The first phone call to a newly assigned person, I always dread that my mourner will sob uncontrollably and hate me because I made him remember his beloved is dead. As a bereaved mother, I know this isn’t likely. Still, that first call is scary. I never know what I’ll get.

Sometimes on the initial calls, I find people who are terribly lonely and grateful to have someone, even a stranger, to talk to. Not much of a conversationalist myself, if they babble on about their loss, I’m content to sit and listen as they reminisce or cry.

Other times, though, I find someone who is even more shy and reserved on the phone than I am. I frantically fish around for good questions not answerable with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is almost painful trying to engage some people. “May I call you again in three months?” I ask at the end of the call, wondering if they will take the opportunity to opt out.

Once, on a first call, a person told me, “Oh, I’m so over that. My life is much better now that he’s dead.”

It’s all okay. Better to phone than not phone. Because in the weeks and months following the death of a loved one, after the funeral, after family and friends have returned to their normal lives and deliveries of flowers and dinners have stopped, that is when a phone call (or regularly occurring calls) to the bereaved may be most welcome and needed. When I find the one whose friends and relatives have gotten tired of hearing her stories about her deceased loved one, and she’s bursting with the need to talk, it is worth all the worry and discomfort. “I miss my Joe,” she wails. And since she’s in howling-mode anyway, I ask, “What do you miss most about him? What was the best thing about Joe?” Or, “How did you two meet?” Or, “How did he change your world?” And if the person on the other end of the line is not gushing over with endless tales of her beloved one, I might ask, “What can you do to honor his memory?”

And finally, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” That’s my favorite question because it gets back to the bereaved person and the self-care he or she deserves as they face the reality of life without their loved one.


What do you say to support the bereaved? What is the most difficult phone conversation to have with anyone?

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6 thoughts on “Phoning the Bereaved

  1. Elaine Mansfield

    Thank you for doing this, Robin. Sometimes it’s so important–and other times not welcome. How do we know until we ask? I made these calls until a few years ago when my hearing became impossibly impaired. At that time, I had to give up on phone calls and bereavement groups. So now I help in the office and give a talk on occasion. It feels important for people to know they have resources when needed.

    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Well, Elaine, I don’t know what you did or said, but people loved your workshops at Hospicare. I still have people requesting those groups lead by Elaine Mansfield. I’m glad you’ve found your place in the office. It seems like such a neat place to work. I wonder if you bring Willow in with you?

  2. Monica Sword

    I had a similar experience this week, phoning a long time friend who’s son had died last week. Being a bereaved mother, you’d think I’d know all the right things to say. Instead, I stared at the phone a long time, picked it up, set it down several times, cried as the memories of my early grief days came flooding back. After waiting a couple days, I tried again with better composure, still tearfully. It can’t be helped. These are the most difficult of calls and as they should be. The newly bereaved mother was grateful I called and asked that I continue to call. No problem there. She’s at the top of my calling list.

    Thank you Robin.

    1. Robin Botie Post author

      I know, it’s so much easier to make those calls to the bereaved after the first one where you set up a relationship of some kind. Kind of like scouting out the territory for danger, finding the scene is safe, and feeling like you can come back again and be in good standing. I wish I’d had these calls the first year of my bereavement. It was so hard to not have people who would listen eagerly to my stories about Marika. I try to remember how that felt, to yearn to mention her, when I make these calls.

  3. Lynne Taetzsch

    I think that in general, people don’t know what to say, Robin. I was surprised when good friends did not return my call telling them my husband had died. Later I’d find out that they were just afraid they wouldn’t say the right thing. Of course, just calling and listening would be a comfort. I think listening is the most important part. But it’s not easy for most people. Good for you for providing this comfort to the bereaved!

    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Well, it isn’t easy, as I, too, am often afraid of saying the wrong thing. Even though I know better, I keep thinking I’m going to make the bereaved sad by mentioning their beloved one. Even though I know they are yearning to hear their loved one’s name and have the opportunity to talk about him/her. I’m still learning this.


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