Misadventures in Communication

My father subscribes to my hometown’s Jewish newspaper, which I enjoy reading when I visit. A recent edition featured an obituary for an old friend of my parents. I mentioned it to my father, who hadn’t heard the news. He asked me to call the widower so that he could offer condolences.

A call like this can be awkward, especially when you have read about a death in the paper and have no outside confirmation.

I located the number, identified myself to the woman who answered, and explained why I was calling. She put my father’s friend on, and I began again. He appeared to understand who who was calling. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Me: I read about your wife in the paper, and my father. . .
Widower: What about her?
Me: Um, we saw the obituary in the paper.
W: What obituary?
Me: [I confirm that I am talking to the correct person. He does not have a common name.] There is an obituary here for your wife.
W: [Convincingly] My wife is alive.
Me: Um, there must be a mistake.
W: Yes, there is a mistake. Where is that notice again?
Me: In the local Jewish newspaper.
W: Please send me a copy.

I demurred and quickly ended the conversation, without giving the phone to my father.

I checked the obituary again. One and a half columns detailed the wife’s life accomplishments and listed the rabbi who had officiated at the funeral. On the same page a paid announcement from a local synagogue offered condolences to the widower.

My father was distressed by the confusion and talked about it all evening. When my sister got home, she reported that the wife had told her several years ago about her husband’s Alzheimer’s.


  1. mother in israel says

    ID, it is. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Disturbing and sad story.

  3. Painful. Alzheimer’s runs in our family. My uncle now has it. I used to visit my grandmother in Brookline, MA, and she thought she was living in Brooklyn, NY. They do look similar, at least on Beacon Street.
    You wrote that story well, MiI. As disturbing as it was.

  4. That is so heartbreaking.

  5. This is a haunting story.
    I hope it means he gets to live in a world where his wife is still with him. (I know that’s naive.)

  6. So sad. My grandmother was quite senile the last few years of her life, and at one point used to demand daily to go visit her mother – who had died 30 years earlier. It was heartbreaking to have to watch her grieve her mother’s death over and over again. By the time her husband of over 60 years died she didn’t even remember. I’ve never been sure whether that was more of a blessing or a curse.

  7. Lion in Zion says

    alzheimers is a really bad way to go. my grandfather had it and my grandmother is probably well on the way.
    maybe in this instance it’s better for the husband that he doesn’t realize his wife is gone? (although demented patients do have lucid moments, which can be really bad because they realize then what is happening to them.)

  8. So sad. It’s a cruel disease (aren’t they all?)

  9. I don’t know which is more heartbreaking, the fact that a man lost his wife at a time when he clearly needs her very much, or the fact that he doesn’t know that she’s gone. 🙁

  10. It’s a very upsetting story. I’m sure it must have really shaken you.
    I think, btw, that it’s better to let someone like that live with their delusion. There’s no benefit to causing them pain. It’s not like a child who has to make peace with “X isn’t coming back.”
    He may well see her and talk to her, and in his more lucid moments, he can be told that she’s not there right now, so that he won’t have to lose his wife over and over again.

  11. balabusta in blue jeans says

    I wish the woman who answered the phone had checked what you were calling about, and perhaps offered to transmit your condolences at a suitable time. Just letting someone with serious dementia take their own calls seems as though it could upset them quite a lot.

  12. Wow… I’m not sure what to say to that. Sad to see that the man can’t even comprehend that is wife is gone, to grieve. :o(

  13. Oh how sad.
    Sometimes peopkle with A. can fade in-and-out. One time they are OK and on the ball, and at another time completely out of it….

  14. MII,
    This is beginning to hit home, as my mother has aphasia due to a ministroke a few years ago. My neighbor also suffered a stroke and her memory has deteriorated. The neighbor is in much worse shape than my mother.
    My wife and I were in Pittsburgh and we visited an assisted-living facility where the mother of my wife’s friend was living. The woman had a great deal of trouble recognizing my wife, and she was holding a doll. My wife wonders if this is what this does to people.
    My mother was a very active person before this, and although she knows what she wants to say she has a hard time expressing herself. In any event, neither my wife nor I want to have my mother ever live in a nursing home.