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July 25, 2014 / 27 Tammuz, 5774
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More Phone Stories

(Names changed as requested)




Chronic illness, to the great pain of everyone involved, only ends in one way, death. Many well spouses are left to mourn not only their loved ones, but to mourn the life that wasn’t – the life that was stolen by sickness. Well spouses show the same emotions and experience the same loss as anyone else. It just has another dimension. And so treating them with less respect or consideration is uncalled for.


Pnina told me that she thought her head would split when she was sitting shiva for her chronically-ill spouse. She appreciated the calls and visitors, but running from phone to visitor left her tired and talked out. It was then that she decided to only take long- distance calls for the rest of the day. The next call really surprised her. It was from a friend who lived far away, who wanted to express her condolences.


Pnina left a room full of people and went to the bedroom to take the call, which went something like this; “Pnina, I’m so sorry to hear the news. How are you? It must be so difficult for you right now. Oh, I have a beep. Hold on.”


Pnina was left holding a silent phone for several minutes. She wanted to hang up, but knew she’d have to finish this conversation eventually, so it might as well be now. She didn’t want to go back to the living room, where people were waiting for her, to just be called back out again by her friend, thinking they had been disconnected. She wondered, if perhaps her friend was expecting an important call and if so, why choose to call her now. Eventually, her friend got back on the line and said, “That was our friend Lea. She’s fine and asked me to send her best.” Pnina wondered at her friends priorities. She wondered why a condolence call wasn’t important enough to ignore a “call-waiting.”


Pnina shared another story with me. She told me that a friend – let’s call her Brocha – came to pay her condolences very soon after the funeral. Brocha’s first words to Pnina were, “You’ll never believe the horrible day I had today.” She began to tell Pnina of children late for school, bad weather and traffic. Suddenly she caught herself, realized what she was doing and apologized. She told Pnina to “go first,” and then she’d fill her in on her awful day. Before Pnina could react, Brocha’s cell phone went off. It was Brocha’s mother. And so ignoring Pnina, who was sitting next to her, she began to tell her mother everything she realized was inappropriate to lead with in a shiva house.




Joyce, like Pnina had been inundated with wonderful, considerate and caring calls during shiva. But when it became overwhelming, she too decided to only take the long-distance calls. When a friend arrived that evening, she was quite upset at Joyce. She had called three times during the day and was angry at Joyce, that she had not been able to get through to chat with her.


Shlomo had taken his answering machine to his father’s hospital room. His father would become very agitated when he could not reach the phone and was more at ease knowing who had called. They had not had a chance to retrieve and reconnect the answering machine after the funeral. Shlomo couldn’t believe how angry people were at him, that there was no answering machine in the shiva house so they could leave him their condolences over the phone.


Many of us become oblivious when we’re on the phone. We forget who we are sitting with and even whom we are talking about – even if that person is right in front of us. It is as if the phone has total control, and we are mere automatons, doing its bidding. We no longer know how to act if the phone sequence we are so used to having breaks down or if, heaven forbid, there is no way to leave a message. We forget that the phone is just a tool – something to enhance the life of the person making the call and the person receiving it. We cannot let a call-waiting go unanswered or expect someone to be too involved to take our calls. We even seem to forget that the conversation we are having in a room full of people will be overheard and may be disturbing, or just plane rude.


I do believe if most of us could see ourselves in these situations, we would be shocked at our own behavior and words. Maybe it is time to look at the tools we use each day, and decide whether we are using them or if they are in control of us. Oh, excuse me. Gotta end now, my phone is ringing.


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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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