It started out just like any other work day. Responding to emails, seeing clients, filling out paperwork, and of course answering the phone that never stops ringing. Shortly before lunch the phone rang again, and I answered, expecting it to be a client. But it wasn’t.
“Hello. I’m a counselor at [a local resettlement agency], and I’m here with your client C and her family. She just received news this morning that her brother has passed away back in their country. However, we don’t know how to reach her sister L, who is working and doesn’t have a cell phone. We would like her to come home to be with the family. Could you pick her up?”
I said, “Of course,” and hung up the phone. I was stunned. So many thoughts running through my head. I didn’t know how their brother had died, but I knew he had to be young. I started to imagine the heartache they must have felt after moving so far away from him just months ago and to have to receive the news by phone. I wondered what it was like to be unable to say goodbye and unable to return home for the funeral. I felt sadness for these two sisters who I had gotten to know so well in the four months we had been working together.
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. I picked up the phone and dialed the number to the hotel. I asked for the HR manager, who I knew personally. She answered the phone and as I explained that L’s brother had just died and her family wanted her to come home, I started tearing up. I got so choked up that it caught me off guard, and I started stumbling over my words. I remember telling her that I would be there in 30 minutes to pick L up, but that she wasn’t aware of the news and just to tell her I would be coming.
My coworker saw my red eyes and asked what was wrong. I couldn’t get over the awkwardness of what would happen when I went to pick L up. Had she seen it coming? Was her brother sick? Was it a sudden death? Would she ask me why I was picking her up from work in the middle of the day? And, most important, would she be able to tell I had been crying? My gracious co-worker had a meeting downtown shortly after and offered to ride with me so that I didn’t have to go alone. I gladly accepted the distraction.
We got into the city, and I was lucky to find parking right out front of the hotel. My coworker left for her meeting and I knew I’d only be a minute, so I hurried into the hotel without paying a visit to the parking machine . I asked for L at the front desk. Her manager came out a minute later but said she just called L down and now she was changing out of her uniform. It took a few minutes longer than I expected. She came out with a sense of nervousness about her. I didn’t know what to say so I just rushed over the words that her sister asked me to pick her up and then tried to switch the topic to her job. We left the hotel and walked across the street to my car. I had the dreaded yellow envelope on my window, a glaring punishment for ignoring the parking laws, despite the fact that my work would have paid for it.
We climbed in the car and I dealt with the situation the best way I knew how- to fill the empty space between us with small talk. We talked about Michael Jackson. About music. Who her favorite artists are. She had a nervous shake in her legs and kept looking straight ahead. We weren’t making eye contact. I couldn’t smile or laugh- how can you in the midst of death? But I didn’t want to seem sad either. Her answers to questions were uncharacteristically short and her face covered in worry.
I knew. I knew that she knew. But it wasn’t my place to tell her and there was nothing I could say. So instead, we let this tragic piece of news float between us without either of us claiming it. We got off the interstate and drove the 60 remaining blocks to her house. As more lights turned from red to green, I got butterflies in my stomach. Her short answers became one word answers. The last ten blocks I didn’t say anything. I turned on her street and then into her parking lot. Her house was the very first door on the right and it was open. She got out of the car, gathered her belongings, and started to walk away. The second she crossed the threshold into her house, I heard a loud wail that only comes from the very depths of your being. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, sickened by what just happened inside. I turned around, ready to run, to flee the situation. As I made my move, someone I didn’t recognize stepped outside. It was the grief counselor. I rolled down my window just briefly enough for her to tell me thank you. She told me my other clients, who are friends and community members with L and C were there to be with them as well. I did find some small comfort in the strong sense of community and togetherness they had brought with them from their culture. I rolled up the window and pulled out of the parking lot just in time to cry. As the tears rolled down my cheeks, the scream I heard from L, the wail that caused her to collapse at the doorway, was playing in my head.
I had to drive back to work. It was early afternoon and the sun was out. I had clients to serve and I couldn’t just go home and wallow in someone else’s sorrows. But I also couldn’t get past the fact that they would never see their brother again or be there to bury him, a ceremony so important in their culture and for many people, a a part of the healing process.
I was numb the rest of the afternoon. I also felt embarrassed that I had cried on the phone to the employer. I had been in the job for less than a year. I started thinking about how service providers shouldn’t get emotionally involved. I also remember thinking that I always thought that was stupid.. and now I was wondering if maybe it wasn’t.
I left work that day and and drove to one of my favorite parks. I called my sister. I started sobbing as soon as she picked up the phone. I could barely spit it out. “I don’t think I can do this job anymore.” Being the more rational one between us (or maybe the only rational one), she tried to calm me down. I explained the sadness I felt for my client over the loss of her brother and how she can’t return home. My sister listened and told me I don’t have to do this job anymore if I didn’t want to. I appreciated her support.
She also told me she had a terrible mishap getting a spray tan that day, just like Ross did on Friends, and got sprayed twice on the front and looks like an oompa loompa. Making herself the target of my jokes, she always knows how to take one for the team.
I hang up the phone and less than five minutes later, before I have a chance to walk back to my car, L is calling me. I wasn’t sure what to do. I answered calmly, and I hear her soft voice on the line. She tells me that today she received her first pay check, but in the midst of the situation, she has lost it and wants to know if it’s in my car. I get back to my car and check everywhere- under the seat, beside the seat, up front, in the back, but I don’t find it. She has lost her very first pay check in the U.S. I wonder if she needs it to help pay for the funeral. I tell her not to worry and we will sort it out on Monday. I tell her I’m sorry about her brother, and I hang up.
I drive down the mountain, away from the park, and with a small sense of ease about me, feeling lighter. I got it out of my system. And I heard L’s voice. It didn’t mean she wasn’t grieving and feeling pain, but I knew she was going to make it through another hurdle in her life. I also knew she needed to get her pay check. And to do that, she needed my help. My sister was right. While I was sitting there thinking I couldn’t do this job anymore, she was putting it in perspective that I didn’t have to do this job anymore if I didn’t want to. It was never the case that I didn’t want to, I just needed to find some thicker skin. And after traversing uncomfortable territory that day, I started to find it.
When I started serving refugees, I had to figure out how to serve them most effectively. I learned, with time, to feel the same empathy I had felt before but to channel my feelings of sadness or sorrow into actions. It doesn’t mean that their problems don’t upset me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t pause to let my client cry it out and unload their burdens on a listening ear. But it does mean that I have to steer conversations in positive directions and channel my energy into doing something proactive. More on this topic to come.
L gave birth to a beautiful baby boy four months later. She has since returned to work at the same job and can speak basic English now.