Before my junior year in high school, I returned from a Boy Scout canoeing trip to discover my sister had been killed in a car crash. I will never forget the sadness of the moment when I walked into the house that was filled with what seemed like half the caring and wonderful town of De Smet to find my mom and dad there grieving. It was near the end of that summer, but the beginning of a long period of mourning for my family and me.
There were lessons that came to me after my sister’s death. I realized how important support from a community could be. Consolation came from our friends, neighbors, church community, as well as people we barely knew. It seemed more about their presence and not their words. I noticed there were people who had trouble themselves dealing with such loss, and they sort of disappeared.
Also, I realized that a funeral is not exactly a time of closure for a family, but really just the beginning of a time to accept reality and forge ahead with the difficult changes that life can and does deal out. It took me years to think about my sister and relish in her memory rather than cringe from the pain of the loss. In that sense, I know I will never have closure and that’s good.
Some 14 years after her death, while I was on the faculty of a medical school in Georgia, I found myself having to advise medical students how to talk to patients or family about sad news. I reviewed the medical literature on the subject at the time and concluded that there is no right way to do it except to be 100 percent honest and to say whatever is needed with compassion.
Through the years those guidelines have sustained me while I have had the burden of sharing awful news.
Bottom line, it is being there, more than words that consoles. Never worry about what to say, just show up, be honest, and care.
Richard P. Holm, MD passed away in March 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is founder of The Prairie Doc. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc on Facebook.