The woman suddenly cried.
In one breath, she shifted from smiling and looking weary from another day of work . . . to tears. The person beside her, older and probably her mother, was caught off guard. What do you do with an abruptly weeping 30-something daughter?
The women had been passing in front of my hospice’s table display. Along with a colleague, I staffed the table — covered by brochures, resource samples and the popular free mints in a jar — to answer questions about our grief support services.
The sobbing woman stared at the section of the table devoted to our Angel Babies program.
My colleague leaned toward her and asked, quietly, gently, “How long ago?”
Seven years since the death of her child.
Before I continue . . .
Respecting confidentiality, let me explain several key points. Everything I’ve described about these two women — likely ages, possible relationship, and the length of time since a baby’s death — is fiction. Whenever I write about hospice, about the real people we serve, I divert readers from the factual details of another’s vulnerable life.
Still, two things were true.
Someone stopped at our table. This person wept openly and unexpectedly.
The displayed material on the table, those colorful brochures and dull hand-outs about future grief support groups, included the teddy bears given to families who’ve had a child die. And there were also baby gowns — hand stitched by volunteers — that are given for the dying child to wear. Those gowns are made from donated wedding dresses. A group at a local church receives “old” wedding apparel and transforms them into precious gifts.
And so, the tears.
My colleague, who works with families that have experienced a child’s dying and death, simply asked, how long?
Isn’t that a long, long time ago?
But, without warning, it could feel like yesterday.
A hundred or more folks strolled by our table during the next hour. All were there because they might (to be honest with my hospice’s intentions) contribute money. I work in bereavement, which is mandated by Medicare but minimally reimbursed. Every hospice — whether a non-profit (like mine), or the many for-profit hospices — is confronted by endless funding demands. Several of our key programs wouldn’t exist without the generosity of individuals and companies.
Money matters! After all, a hospice is a business.
And yet it is not a business. Hospice, the care for patients and families, the care of the griever, is also a tender-hearted calling.
I witnessed other women move by our display table, headed to where speeches were given to promote donations, or departing after the presentations. These women veered closer to the table. Slowing, never stopping, some reached out to touch the baby gowns.
Just a brush, the palm of a hand stroking the gown’s soft material.
A finger tracing the silk surface.
They kept walking.
What happened in those split seconds of contact?
I don’t know. But I can guess.
We all bear invisible scars and wounds and losses and hurts and broken promises. Our dearest ones have died. Our beloved ones are no longer by our side. Our friends and lovers, who we’d have battled an army to keep alive another day or year, did die. Our siblings and parents, who we had one more thing to share with or say to them, did die. And all the next conversations died too. Our babies, innocent and cherished and representing the purest dreams we could imagine, died.
On the outside, how calm we can appear! Collected. We can fake it every day, and in every way. I’m strong. I’m a survivor. You can try to break me, but I’ll only bend.
You know the clichés. Tough we are.
Tough we aren’t.
Storms rage beneath the contours of our skin.
We grieve, never fully prepared for the moments when we’ll fall apart. Death does that to the living. Grief, forever clever, eagerly takes the stage for another encore.
A woman wept. Seven years ago, her baby died. She is fine. She is a survivor. She wakes every morning to welcome a new day.
But those tears flowed, unexpected and inevitable.
And those others, as they reached out, as they — briefly, unobtrusively — caressed the gowns, they too are among the wounded.
I have learned this, and still need to learn it, that all are grievers.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor. A longtime Fresno resident, Patten currently works at a local hospice. He maintains the websites www.larrypatten.com and www.hospice-matters.com. Reach him at email@example.com.