When a significant health crisis occurs — a serious accident, a hospitalization or a death in the family — word spreads quickly. The phone begins to ring. People want to know what is happening. They want to offer sympathy. They want to offer help.
All of that arises from love and concern. But a constantly ringing phone means someone has to keep answering it. In answering, the person ends up repeating the story again and again, answering questions and sometimes ends up reassuring and comforting the caller. The energy involved in doing that hour after hour adds up, often tiring family members who are already being drained. Yet they can feel guilty in not responding to caring inquiries.
What can be done to manage this challenge in a way that doesn’t leave callers uninformed on the one hand, while not further draining the family on the other?
Several things can be done — all involving various communication options, each particularly useful with different generations.
The answering machine is a good first step. Someone can create a message that gives the basic facts people will want to know.
For example: “You’ve reached the Smith house. Today is Monday, Nov. 1. As some of you may have heard, mom had a fall last Friday, lost consciousness and was taken to Cottage Hospital. The doctors aren’t sure yet what caused it, but mom is resting comfortably. She isn’t able to accept visitors at present, but you can wish her well by leaving a message after the beep or send a card to our address. We will update this message every so often, so please check back if you wish. On behalf of the family, thanks for your concern.”
After the beep, the caller can leave a message. When they hang up, callers will feel as if they’ve been informed and know what they can do to show support. Of course, if the family overhears the message as it’s being given and realizes it’s someone they want to talk to at that moment, they can pick it up. But they don’t have to feel like they must answer every call — a big relief in what is often a stressful time.
The initial message can be updated every day or two so people can be kept informed.
In the case of a death, a phone message can give details of any memorial service with details such as a contact person if they wish to help in any way, including bringing food for a reception.
New communication technologies also can be effective, depending on the age of the people who will be concerned.
E-mail works well in these situations. With e-mail, combining all interested people into one group can make daily updates easy. Again, people can respond to those messages, and their responses can be reviewed when the family has time.
In situations that stretch out over time, people can be directed by e-mail or phone messages to a blog created just for such a situation. Regular updates keep everyone informed. With most hospitals having wireless networks, such updates can be created while keeping vigil at the bedside.
The rapid growth of social networking sites such as Facebook have become ideal ways for people to keep others informed of emerging situations. With teens and people in their 20s, memorial services are often created and coordinated entirely through Facebook.
And, of course, the rapid emergence of Twitter gives one more option for free, instant and accurate information.
In times of serious illness and even a death in the family, using appropriate communication tools can be a relief to the family and reassuring to concerned friends. During the years I’ve been serving families in such situations, I’ve seen it make a significant difference time after time.
— Steve Jacobsen is executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara. Call Hospice of Santa Barbara at 805.563.8820 for a schedule of adult and children’s groups, or to make a donation.