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?