Friday, 22 February 2008

An Amateur's Guide to Grief

My personal experiences with grief and loss are limited to the following:

  • My rat Chippy who died of a cancerous tumor when I was 9

  • My kitten Oliver who was bitten by a snake when I was 11

  • Some mice I owned when I was 7ish who were neglected and ate each other. Being that I was the one who neglected them, I wasn't overly upset. (Yes, I feel badly now. Poor little sods.)

  • My paternal grandfather who died when I was 8 or 9. He was estranged from my father, I had never met him, I was only allowed to refer to him by his first name, and I wasn't told of his death until I was a teenager.

  • A few clients who disappeared down the path of long hospital stays, nursing home, and finally palliative care. I would stop having visits with them as they declined and then would find out many months later that they had passed away.

That's all.

I have not lost any other family, friends or pets. I have never attended a funeral or a wake or placed a memorial in the newspaper. It's safe to say that my maternal grandfather and my dog Chloe will probably pass away within the next few years, with my grandfather currently clocking in at 95 human years and Chloe at 86 dog years.

Being that many of my clients are elderly they having to deal with loss, be it spouses, siblings, or friends. Today I visited a longterm client who had just lost a daughter on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. Just a few years ago she was a mother of four and now she has only one surviving child. My mantra during my visit was "don't make it worse don't make it worse don't make it worse don't make it worse don't make it worse don't make it worse don't make it worse". I knew that was the best I could hope for. She has suffered a profound loss that I will not be able to understand until I am a parent. The best I could hope for was not putting my foot in my mouth. I've found there are some basic guidelines that can guide you through someone else's loss:

Follow their lead. If they are talking about it, listen. If they don't want to talk about it, leave them be. There is no right way to grieve.

Don't offer platitudes. "At least they are not in pain anymore." "Time heals all wounds." "What doesn't kill you can only make you stronger." "It was God's will." These kinds of statements have never helped anyone. Ever.

Less is more. If you don't know what to say just tell them you are so sorry for their loss. You don't need to be profound or poetic. You are not going to be able to find magical words that make them forget their troubles. Just let them know you care and that you are thinking of them.

Embrace silence. As a general rule, gaps in conversation make me feel quite awkward and I usually rush to fill them. Don't do that in this kind of situation. Try to limit your input into the conversation to speaking only about 20% of the time. If the conversation lulls, just being there and holding their hand may be all they want at that moment.

Offer support as appropriate. The terms of my employment limit how much support I can be outside of my visits. I happen to live just around the corner from this client and we bump into each other as we walk our dogs (we both have Harrys). I can probably offer her more support as I am her neighbour therefore I can drop in. If it were a different client it would not be appropriate for me to visit with them outside of work. In other circumstances, giving your phone number and making yourself available to listen is probably appreciated even if they don't take you up on the offer.

If concerned, refer to a profressional. Social support is a significant part of my job but I have no formal training in social work or counselling. If I suspected a client was having a difficult time dealing with their loss I have a legal and ethical obligation to suggest the client see a doctor or counsellor and inform my team leader of my concerns. This can be done sensitively and without coming across as an armchair psychologist. In one case I tentatively suggested a client speak to their doctor to deal with the symptoms of their intense grief: sleep difficulty and complete loss of appetite. They did so and this opened the door to the GP himself suggesting grief counselling and a short course of anti-anxiety meds.


IL Social Worker said...

This was a very good post! One of the most profound and comforting things anyone ever did for me was when I returned home from my grandmother's funeral. A neighbor came over with coffee and a pack of cigarettes and just sat and watched television with me, nothing else. I cried on and off, laughed at the television or mumbled or ranted and raved about different insipid things that people had done during the wake and the funeral. He didn't say much at all. To this day I remember him fondly. And gratefully.

ukok said...

I agree with your previous commenter, this post was very good indeed.

There is absolutely nothing helpful at all in platitudes, they only serve to make the one who says them, feel better, feel less awkward.

They never made me feel better when my fiancé died.

Plumbob said...

ILS- If only we could all have neighbours so wonderful.

Ukok- I wonder why platitudes are so common? I have never met anyone who actually finds them comforting.