Carolyn was sixty-nine when she was enrolled in outpatient Hospice services with Parkinson’s disease. Carolyn and Charlie have lived in Adams County, Ohio their entire lives; but they could have survived and thrived in Alaska, “The Last Frontier”. Charlie and Carolyn know how to survive. Charlie worked at a local refrigeration company. He restored and sold used tractors and rebuilt a car engine in a day. Carolyn and Charlie cut, stacked and sold firewood together; Carolyn tended a garden, canned and mowed the lawn; and they’ve both “witched” for water. Charlie pastored churches for over thirty years and Carolyn was right by his side. They had a nursing home visitation ministry for several years. Charlie said, “Carolyn was a really good alto singer but I was a tenner. People told me they’d prefer to hear me sing from tenner fifteen miles away.”
Charlie claimed, “I married one tough chick. You can’t tell if she’s in pain. She passed a kidney stone the other day and just said, ‘Oh that hurts’, three or four times and that was about it. And when she cut off her toe with the lawnmower she just cleaned it up and wrapped a towel around it and called and asked her niece to take her to the hospital. She didn’t even call me at work.”
The old saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”; but in the words of our ninety-year old hospice volunteer, Bill, “That’s a lie!” Words can wound and even break our spirits. Carolyn shared, “I’ve been on the floor crying. I don’t like it when people say things like, ‘Don’t worry, just trust in God’, ‘it’ll be alright’, ‘God will take care of you’, ‘you just need to pray about it’. One elderly man at church told me, ‘you just need to shake your fist at God and stomp your feet and tell him what you want him to do.’ I thought ‘Yeah! Old man, you don’t know what you’re talking about! Not with my God!’”
Charlie continued, “But it’s hard to get mad at someone when they mean well. That elderly fellow at church was just ignorant, he wasn’t learned.” Charlie’s comment reminds me of what Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, KJV). I guess sometimes, “We know not what we say”.
Worn out and threadbare platitudes and clichés aren’t very helpful and neither is glib advice. Charlie stated, “I don’t like advice from a distance. It’s about as welcome as a hair in a biscuit.” My wife, Susie, reinforced that lesson a few years ago. We were in the middle of a thirteen year stent of caregiving. I came home to find Susie sitting at the kitchen table with her forehead resting in the palms of her hands. I asked, “What’s wrong?” and she replied, “I’ve been down at mom and dads.” As she unloaded her frustration, you guessed it, I gave her my unsolicited advice, “Susie, what you need to do is…” Susie justifiably and immediately fired back, “Did I ask you for your advice? Did I ask you to solve my problems? I was hoping that just this once you would just put your arms around me and hold me, that you would just understand.”
Paul Tournier, Swiss physician wrote, “There are some emotions, pent up and unexpressed that block the flow of life…The feeling that one is understood is what helps him to live, to face any problem, however difficult without being false to himself. It is a moment of truth.”(“The Listening Ear”)
I asked Charlie, “If you were organizing a hospital or shut-in ministry at your church, what advice would you give to the volunteers? Charlie replied, “I would tell them ‘give people an opportunity to express their true feelings. Just listen to what they have to say. Some people just need a shoulder to cry on. And you don’t need to say a lot. We can talk too much. And whatever people tell you keep it just between you and them. People have told me a lot of things as a pastor but a lot of the things I didn’t even tell Momma. And I would tell them, ‘just be open and honest with people. People need to be told the truth.’ Carolyn was always honest. If I wanted to know the truth I would ask her. She wouldn’t cut any corners and she wouldn’t sweeten it up any”. Carolyn interjected, “I’m still telling him the truth but he won’t listen”. Charlie stated, “But she took me for better for worse” and Carolyn replied, “Don’t tempt me”. Her sheepish grin revealed that she was pretty proud of her comeback.
Charlie continued, “And I would tell them, ‘just be pleasant and have a good sense of humor. A sense of humor goes a long way. And timing is a good thing to keep in mind too, a schedule. Let people know when you will be stopping by. It gives them something to look forward too.’ Then Charlie concluded, I would tell them, ‘just be with people; let them know that you are there for them, not just in word but in deed. But you better be there if you say you are going to be.
We may not always know what to say, but Charlie has given us some practical suggestions about what we can do.
“…whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house upon the rock.” (Matt 7:24-27)
Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 740-356-2525