Hearing with Heart: Grieving for Lost Sound

Her brows scrunched together and her hand covered her mouth to hide her feelings. Her eyes said she was saying something important, but I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids and heard nothing. Not a sound. Blank space. Still air. Nothing. Her words disappeared into the 12 foot ceilings of the room. Lost.

A few days later, I describe the disappearing sound to Dr. Matt MacDonald, my audiologist at Hart Hearing Center. He rolls his eyes and arches his brows knowingly. He knows his patients do more than read lips. We read eyebrows and glances, head tilts and lip curls, every gesture and every shrug. He faces me squarely so I can read his lips and gestures clearly like a subtle mime.

“OK, let’s do some testing,” he says. He ushers me into the sound proof booth, leaning toward me as he gently places head phones on my ears. He settles on the other side of a window, places a headset over his cropped head, and covers his mouth so I can’t read his lips.

Dr. Matt MacDonald

“Say boy,” he says. “Boy,” I repeat.

“Say stew.” “Stew.”

He calls out the words. I respond.

“Say church.” Hmmm…was that chirp or church. I make my best guess, a technique that can cause confusion in normal conversation. “Church.” The sounds blur when he adds background noise.

“Not bad,” he tells me when the test is finished. “A small loss, about what I would expect in a year.”

“I struggle more than last year,” I complain.

“I’ve been following your hearing since 1999,” he says. “You notice smaller losses now because your hearing is on the edge of the normal decibel range for conversation. A small loss drops you over that edge and makes word comprehension difficult.”

“Do I need new hearing aids?” I ask. If technology will help, I’ll pay the price.

“Soon,” Dr. MacDonald says. “A new generation of hearing aids is coming out this winter. Let’s wait for them, but meanwhile I’ll reprogram your hearing aids.”

“Am I going completely deaf?” I ask, searching his eyes for the truth. I don’t ask if I’m heading toward social isolation, but that’s my fear. I’ve already lost the joy of music and the pleasure of noisy social gatherings. Most social outings are a strain–restaurants, parties, movies–and now that I live alone, it’s tempting to retreat into silent isolation. I do well when one person speaks at a time in the bereavement groups I lead or in writing classes or with a friend, but I fear living in a silent world.

“I doubt you’ll ever become completely deaf,” Dr. MacDonald answers with a reassuring smile. “Your loss is slow enough that hearing aid technology is keeping up with it.” He leans over his desk, intently dissembling my hearing aids and connecting them to computer wires. He listens through  his headset, tweaks his dials, readjusts, and tweaks again.

Warm contentment fills my chest as I watch his sensitive hands do their work. I trust the care of this gentle healer and open-hearted listener. When I leave, I have an impulse to hug him, but instead I put my hand over my heart and bow.


Do you struggle with hearing or other issues that cause social isolation? You might enjoy this guest blog, “Loneliness and Solitude in Grief,” by Marty Tousley of Hospice of the Valley.

  1. thank you Elaine!

    • Hi Eve. I appreciate your appreciation.

    • Dear Elaine,
      I too, suffer from hearing loss. I avoid restaurants with background noise, it’s not worth the straining. I am now finding it harder to teach classes from the front of the room, I need to move closer to one who is talking. Lots of my clients have TV’s blasting while I’m visiting them, and I haven’t figured out a tactful way to ask them to turn down the sound since it is their home afterall.
      I’m told it’s not yet “time” for a hearing aid but one is in my future for sure….just like the cataract in my left eye (right eye cataract already surgically removed last year). Aging is not for the faint of heart.
      Please come sometime and visit with me. I promise that there will be no background noise and we can both read each other’s lips!
      I love you for writing and sharing your life with us. Please continue.

      • Thanks for letting me know this, Gail. I did not know. Quite a few people have responded to this post with their own tales of hearing loss, so I know more than ever that I’m not alone. Many people struggle with hearing aids, but I am in love with mine, find them comfortable, and can’t imagine life without them. The little computers in my ears keep me participating in the world in a normal way. I look forward to our quiet visit. Thanks for encouraging me. Peace to you, too, and all our crazy world.

  2. Elaine, I admire the way you write, the way you describe scenes and express emotion through language. “Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. They bring the world into focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception.” – Diane Ackerman

    Blessings ~ Lynne

    FYI ~ I’d love for you to check out my just-created FBk page:

  3. I am right there with you, Elaine. I also wear hearing aids (as of three years ago) and worry each time I see my audiologist for my yearly hearing test ~ so afraid that one day I won’t be able to hear at all. I am beyond grateful for the hearing aid technology that enables me to hear as well as I do, but still, this is yet another loss, most especially for those of us whose work depends upon and requires the gentle art of listening. Who was it who said that aging is not for the faint of heart? ♥

    • Thanks for sharing your situation, Marty. I love computers for the clarity of communication. I am able to hear when one persons speaks at a time and so can lead bereavement groups, do readings, and give talks. I also do fine in most lectures, classes, and small social settings. But if a speaker has an accent or a weak voice, I have to ask her to sit on my left side (my best ear) or be directly in front of me so I can read lips. So far, I’m working it out, one situation at a time and with helpful friends. Without my hearing aids, I’m lost.

  4. What an exquisity work of art and sharing your writing is. We look forward to meeting you next Spring if not before !

    • Thank you, David. This means so much coming from you. I look forward to meeting you, too. I cry hearing the general outlines of the wedding ceremony, but Liz assures me that I will be in good company and no one will mind my tears.

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