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We sat next to each other during a children's program at church, our daughters side by side in front of us. In her excitement, my daughter, Angie, dropped her pacifier, and the other child picked it up. Her mother, who had been sitting silently beside me, grabbed it from her and handed it back to me, saying in a sanctimonious voice, "We don't use those things." This was my introduction to Leah.

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She was tall and thin, with her long, brown hair pulled into a bun. Leah appeared to be humorless and unsociable. She did not converse with anyone, even when approached. Since I had plenty of friends at church, it seemed more effort than it was worth to befriend someone so unresponsive.


I had worked with Leah's husband, Mike, in the trauma intensive care unit. He was an RN who could do the work but didn't interact well with others. He didn't like taking orders from our female charge nurse, nor would he accept help or suggestions from female staff. Mike's isolation at work carried over to his family life. I never saw Mike and Leah talking with people at church.


The day after my encounter with Leah at church, Mike was killed in a tragic accident. While stopped at a red light, he was hit from behind by a truck driven by a teenage boy, high on drugs and alcohol. I felt heart-sick when I heard the news. It no longer mattered that Leah had been so unapproachable. I had to do something.


A week after Mike was killed, Leah and her daughter came to church. Leah was pale; her eyes were puffy. She did not make eye contact with anyone but sat in the back. How could she come and be around all these people? I thought. I saw how people avoided her, not knowing what to say. Her presence was an inescapable reminder that none of us was immune to losing a spouse.


As a nurse and as a Christian, I felt that I must acknowledge her pain in some way. I could care for a family member at the bedside of a dying patient. I knew what to say and how to administer comfort. In the hospital, the patient dies, the family grieves and then they leave. As the nurse, your work is done.


This, however, would be different. What could I say to a newly grieving widow in a social setting? If she had a laceration, how easy it would be to clean and bandage the wound. But how could I apply a bandage to a despairing heart? Would one encounter be enough? Did I have the time to commit to her? What kind of support did she need? What was my real responsibility to this woman who had been so distant in the past?


At the end of the service, another nurse and I approached Leah. I don't remember our words, but I do remember the experience. We sat down beside her, touched her, and spoke of our sadness for her great loss. Leah began rambling about the events of the past week. Through her tears, she poured out her pain. This woman, who hadn't appeared to want friends in the past, was sharing her most personal feelings with two strangers. I realized that Leah was still in shock and one encounter was not going to be adequate.


After that day, I started phoning Leah once a week. What did I say? Not much except to ask, "How are you doing?" That was the only invitation needed to open the door of her grief, frustration and anger. Rather than asking my advice, she just wanted someone to listen. She repeated the story of the horrible event over and over-the dreaded phone call from the police, her trip to the hospital's emergency room and the realization from the doctor's face that her husband was dead. Later it was frustration with the lawyers, the family of the boy whose truck had killed Mike and her lack of financial resources. Anger and grief blended as she battled in court with the family of the boy who had killed her husband. They showed no responsibility and no concern for what he had done.


Leah shared how on the evening when Mike had left for work, he had laid life insurance papers on the table, saying he would sign them when he returned home. She explained how she was just starting her master's degree. She didn't know how she could support her two children on her current salary or manage school. I was forced to deal with my own fears that this trauma produced-the realization that I was just as vulnerable to loss. I also faced the need to complete a will and get life insurance policies in place. I too struggled with questions of tragedy as related to my Christian beliefs. Getting a will and signing a life insurance policy were easy. Asking God why remained a struggle. But with help from books, from Christian leaders and with time, the concern became more bearable.


Months after Mike's death, Leah expressed frustration and sadness with our church. Leaders had initially visited or called her the first two weeks after the accident, but then it was as if it had never happened. There were neither visits nor calls from anyone else at church to see how they could help. Well, I am a nurse, I thought, and we know how to help grieving people. For one whole year, I called Leah every week. Our calls lasted between thirty and forty-five minutes each time.


I listened to her story of pain as she dealt with everyday issues. Her burden was shared, by my listening. Many times I felt tired after our phone calls and emotionally drained and frustrated with the things that frustrated Leah.


I learned that I couldn't fix the problem, nor did I need a set of comforting words. Listening became the most powerful tool I had to offer. By the end of the year, her crying had stopped, and her voice was no longer lifeless and monotone. Our conversations were more matter-of-fact. Leah attended a grief support group for a time. But while she was in school and working full-time, it seemed that the convenience of a phone call was more beneficial. I felt responsible as a church member, but moreso as a nurse, to continue calling.


Once or twice Leah and her two daughters ate dinner with my family. We had little in common. We belonged to the same church, and both of us had children. Leah was going back to school to get her master's degree as a dietitian. She worked in a quiet nursing home. I worked as an RN in a fast-paced university trauma ICU. Leah was as conservative in her views, private and introverted, as I was liberal, straightforward and extroverted. Yet her grief, our shared faith, and my nurse's empathy brought us together.


On the first-year anniversary of Mike's death, I sent flowers to Leah in remembrance. It also was an acknowledgment of her progress in the healing process.


At this point, I gave myself permission to stop calling Leah weekly. It seemed that the worst was over, and Leah was doing well. We would talk when I saw her at church, and occasionally we'd call each other. Then our family moved across the country to another state, and we were gone for several years.


When we returned, we relocated to the town where Leah lived. The first week at our old church, she greeted us enthusiastically. I hardly recognized her. She was smiling, outgoing and gracious. Stylish, short hair and flattering clothes completed her transformation. Leah had just completed her master's degree, and she invited our family to her home that evening for a graduation party. Later that night, as I mingled with Leah's guests, I enjoyed observing a different woman from the one I had met years before. When she introduced me to her boss and friends as the person who called her every week for a year to help her through the most difficult time of her life, I was more than paid-in-full for my efforts.


I learned from Leah that grieving people need someone to help review their changing feelings, grief and challenges. As nurses we're taught to care and comfort. As Christians we are mandated by the Great Comforter to do the same. Many of us steer clear of people who are grieving because we don't know what to say, but there is no need to say the right words. We only have to listen with our hearts.


Discussion Questions

For additional insight and thoughtful questions, see http://www.ncf-jcn/03fa_dtp19.htm for a direct link.