For a significant part of my career, I was a grief therapist affiliated with a Hospice program. People came to our agency for a range of reasons, all having something to do with loss. We also provided grief support as a routine part of Hospice care to the entire family system. One of my most important life lessons has been grounded in the universality of our encounters with death and grief. Rich or poor, educated or not, any shade of the rainbow of cultural diversity…we will all encounter grief and loss in our lives. Crossing the chasm of grief companioning multiple people, however, sometimes provided an exercise in learning from the social situations that divide us even in the midst of this most universal and challenging of life experiences.
I was working as a Hospice bereavement social worker at the time of this story. My morning did not get off to a good beginning. It was snowing out, and my car wouldn’t start. It was not just being stubborn in the cold. It was dead, with no hope of revival. That morning, I wished I had an automotive grief counselor, or better yet, an on-call mechanic. I had two home visits scheduled that morning. The only thing I could think of to do at that moment was borrow a readily available car. My relationship was on the rocks and my partner at the time had a beat up wreck of a car that had even more issues than my car did. But, that morning, that wreck of a car started, while mine did not. In a spirit mixed with anger and humility, I borrowed the car in desparation and went off to work.
After a quick check in at the office, I looked at my two scheduled visits. Each was a a bereavement counseling visit with a woman whose spouse had died on the Hospice program during the past month. This was before the time of the GPS, so I looked up the address in my indexed map book of the county. The first address was in an incredibly affluent area of town. As I drove, the homes grew larger and my insecurities grew exponentially. By the time I reached my destination, I concluded that I looked more like a pizza delivery person than a social worker. I felt small and insignificant and horribly out of place. The woman I was visiting was lovely and dignified, as stately as her home. She also seemed unable to be present with her own emotions, and certainly not comfortable expressing them in front of me. I kept thinking we would soon get to a real place of feeling showing through, but she would instantly excuse herself when any hint of emotion emerged. When she returned, she was free of any outward expression of feeling and our plodding conversation resumed. My awkwardness and her awkwardness seemed to co-exist, each oblivious of the other. I took care to be present with her in spite of the looming elephant I could see in the room. She took care to be present until I had gone over all the factual information on grief, stammering with my own sense of inferiority. She thanked me for making the visit politely, as I wrapped up my professional conversation politely. So much could have been different, for each of us. But neither of us seemed able to cross the divide.
My second visit took me into the depths of the city, into an area where I knew I should only be with a really good reason, and even then only at certain times of the day. It was a neighborhood not far from where I had lived in college, in an Italian now mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood which had recently experienced heavy gang activity. The street address to which I was headed was in the center of that activity. Suddenly, my transportation situation of the day seemed irrelevant. I had planned my meeting in advance (note: reason to be there) and my client’s son was standing out in front of the house to meet me. He motioned and two of his friends came over, with lawn chairs. They sat down next to my beat up wreck of a car. My client’s son said, “they’ll make sure your car is OK. I’ll make sure you’re OK. Mamma’s inside and she really wants to talk to you.” I chuckled (and they smiled) when I thanked them and noted that I was fairly sure no one would want the car even if I left the keys inside, but that I was deeply appreciative of their protection, and of their concern for their beloved matriarch.
During the next hour, I met with a deeply spiritual woman who was longing for someone to whom to pour out her soul and tell her stories. This was a family that wept and cried, shared pictures and stories with me openly as if I was an old family friend. They lit candles and told me of the rituals they put into place to mark their loss together and collectively remember. It was a home barren in possessions and rich in feeling, faith, and family. I felt myself tearing up several times from the gratitude I felt to be a part of their collective mourning for a short while. We connected deeply and meaningfully, and we put a plan in place for three more visits where I could companion her in her own process of mourning and healing, and in her facilitation of that healing for her own family. When we finished, my escort walked me to my car, and the guardians of my beat up vehicle nodded to me and showed me where to turn around safely to leave the neighborhood the same way I came. I watched them watch me until I was safely out of site.
In my beat up car after a day of many contrasts, I felt several palpable lessons. Grief knows no socioeconomic strata. Loss knows no ethnicity. Richness of spirit is not measured by wealth. Recognition of who we are…the beat up parts of our selves as well as our dignity…these are the fabric of our collective humanness. We all are ashamed of something, fearful of something, protective of something, grateful for something.
We can learn a lot when we are willing to learn from the divide.
[Posted as a personal response to Week 12 of Who is My Neighbor at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church]