Thursday, February 27, 2014

Use Your Words

After a death in the family, friends, co-workers, clients, and neighbors don’t know what to say.

I get it. When I’m the friend, co-worker, client, or neighbor, I’m either tongue-tied or babble. Neither’s pretty, but pretty’s not important; making a connection matters.

Spit out that stilted “Sorry for your loss,” and be unable to force another word past your lips. It’s okay. The thought counts, as does the fact you drove an hour in lousy weather.

Tell the story that depicts the deceased as the class clown, office cut-up, or rebel in a suit and tie. You’re brightening the atmosphere and showing the family a side of their loved one they’ve forgotten or never knew. Babble on because the mourners sense the urgency behind your story and know you must get it out before its message is lost forever.

Sometimes, distraction is the better part of valor. My friend Sue had the presence of mind to share her recent kitchen-remodeling woes with me. Her integrated-sink-that-wasn’t leaked on her floor and drenched her shoes. Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did, and it felt good.

Avoid one-upmanship and don’t point out your loved one died younger, after a longer illness, and in worse pain. Chances are the bereaved know those things and understand that crossing the threshold to a funeral home forced you to relive your loss. Unfortunately, right now, we don’t have a lot of comfort to give. In another week or two, we’ll be able to listen.

For years, I’ve opted to attend funerals rather than wakes and have gone to graveside services rather than stop in while a family is sitting shiva. Why? Because I thought I was intruding on private time. I was wrong. Families need the one-on-one connection with friends and acquaintances. I’m kicking myself.

Next week’s blog post will NOT be about death. I promise.

Meanwhile, a question: When you’re nervous or upset do you get tongue-tied or babble?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Goodbye for Now

We buried my father on Saturday. My mother, sibs, the grandkids, in-laws, and I get teary-eyed from time to time, but we also laugh a lot because we always laugh when we’re together.

At the wake, my brother’s best friend since elementary school recalled that my dad, alone among his buddies’ parents, wasn’t fooled by his upstanding-young-man act. “He saw through my bulls*#t.”

Probably so, but my father had a soft spot for a certain kind of bulls*#tter. He had no time for braggarts and those who made empty promises, but he’d cut slack for a guy who just wanted to have fun.

My brother’s best friend grew up to be a responsible member of society and served as a pallbearer. My dad would have gotten a kick out of telling Johnny, “Watch where you’re going, will you?” He’d have been proud, too.  

Another funeral preceded my dad’s, so we waited behind the church for the earlier mourners to disperse. Turns out Sue, my friend-since-freshman-year-of-college, and her husband showed up early, thought they’d gotten the time wrong, ran inside and stumbled into a pew. After a few minutes, Sue wondered why she didn’t recognize anyone. Later, when her husband said something about me having had a long day, I could reply, “Unlike you, I only went to ONE funeral today.”

The next day, my younger daughter broke out some of the videotapes my father recorded in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Camcorder in hand, he’d chronicle birthday parties, trips to Turtleback Zoo, and wedding rehearsals. As the designated videographer, he could disappear into the background while remaining part of things. He captured touching moments, unfortunate hairstyles, and fashion choices we’ll never live down. Parachute pants, anyone? Eventually, we’ll transfer the tapes to digital format and make lots of copies. Big and small memories will live on thanks to my dad.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

There Must Be Some Mistake

My father’s stint in a nursing home has crowded everything else out of my thoughts. You’ve heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” I’m writing what I wish I didn’t know.

The nursing home, like any shared-living community, expects people to use inside voices and consider the well-being of others. A person in physical or psychic pain, though, lacks the energy and wherewithal to consider the group. Relatives of a person in pain focus on their loved one. They don’t mean to ignore the community, but it drops to fourth or fifth place among other, more pressing priorities.

When my dad arrived at the nursing home, he was frail and had periods of disorientation. Family members opted to stay at his bedside during visiting hours, which stretch from eight a.m. until eight p.m. Our all-in approach was good for my dad but infringed on his roommate’s privacy.

The roommate was mobile and spent most of his time in the dayroom, which it why it took us a while to realize he might have liked to return to the room and nap in the middle of the day. While he could have drawn the curtains around his bed and slept any time he wanted, he wouldn’t have had true privacy. We didn't encroach on his half of the room; nevertheless, we crowded him.

We focused on our father and didn't anticipate the roommate’s needs. We should have been more sensitive to his situation.

The roommate suggested we were holding my father back. “Leave him alone for five days, and he’ll be fine.” We dismissed the advice as well-meaning but medically na├»ve when we should have parsed it for its true meaning.

Before long, the roommate let us know he was paying for his nursing-home spot out of pocket and to the tune of $1,000 every three days. We should have parsed that statement, too.

When the roommate's relatives visited, he complained to them about the staff.  Aides were foreign and spoke with accents. Some of them were people of color. He said to one, "I'm an American. I don't know what you are."

One morning, the social worker met me and my youngest sister in the hallway and said our dad was being transferred to a private room. We should have been pleased, but patients prone to disorientation need same old, same old. The roommate walked by in time to see me frown.

“I’m paying $1,000 every three days,” he said. Loudly.

Ah. I understood.

My dad is, temporarily at least, in a private room. It’s lovely, and he seems more at ease in it.

Are you wondering why my father got the private room and not his roommate? Me, too. If the social worker knows, she’s not telling.  She’s a thoughtful, compassionate woman who speaks with an accent.