Finding Peace with the Loss of a Loved One
Guy Freeman and Pat LeBaron share the different stages of grief, if you can ever prepare yourself for a loss of a loved one, and professional support available.
Melanie Cole (Host): If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know how hard it can feel to move on and continue on with your own life. This is Check-Up Chat with EvergreenHealth. I’m Melanie Cole. And today, we’re talking about finding peace with the loss of a loved one. My guests in this panel discussion are Pat LeBaron, she’s a Hospice Chaplain and Guy Freeman is a Hospice Social Worker and they are both with EvergreenHealth. Pat, I’d like to start with you. People deal with grief differently. Is there a right way, a wrong way? What would you like to tell us about the ways that we deal with grief?
Pat LeBaron (Guest): I think people are under the impression that there is a correct and incorrect way to grieve. And grief is as individual as we are. Everyone grieves differently. Everyone has different coping skills. Grief is hard enough without you feeling like you have to measure up in some way. And it will take as long as it takes, and everybody is different in how they go through it.
Guy Freeman (Guest): And Melanie, I’d like to add to that. I like to remind folks, friends, that grieving is a normal and natural reaction to a loss that we have in our lives. And too often, when we experience grief, it can get pathologized by ourselves thinking like what’s wrong with me, why is this taking so long, why is it getting worse not better. And again, I like what Pat said that it’s very individual, it’s very much about embracing as hard as that may sound, embracing one’s grief and allowing time to move through it.
Host: Thank you for that answer both of you. Now Guy, you’re a Hospice Social Worker, so you are working with end of life care. Can you prepare for the loss of a loved one and if so, how do you go about doing that?
Guy: It is both a yes and a no. Yes, there are things that you can do to prepare. I always encourage families or caregivers to identify and lean into their sources of support. And if they have gotten socially isolated over the years by caring for a loved one; now would be a good time to redevelop as best you can to reconnect with some of those social supports whether it’s a church, friends, a faith community so that you are not completely alone when you do experience the actual loss.
Other ways to prepare is like listening to this type of podcast quite honestly and getting familiar with the grieving process. As Pat alluded, there is a lot of misconceptions about what grief is and isn’t and what’s normal or what’s dysfunctional kind of grief or complicated grief. As best you can, educate yourself about what is this going to be like and so when it happens, you are not kind of fighting yourself about what is perhaps very healthy grieving reaction.
Where it is something you can’t really prepare for, we’ve had patients or family members that have had a patient that has been on a long slow decline for years and it sometimes described as the long goodbye and family members will say well I know I’m going to be ready when they pass away and sometimes they are, but sometimes I’ll hear back from them and they say I had no idea. I thought I would be ready for this. But even though I knew it was coming, it’s still different now that they are gone. So, again, just allowing yourself the graciousness of each experience being different.
Pat: I think people may not realize the finality of death when it finally happens. And it’s true, we do have patients who have long-term illnesses and the spouse or the kids or the family in a way, they are already grieving. We call that anticipatory grief but when they actually die; it’s so final that sometimes they are a little unprepared for the shock of that. Even if the person had been not verbal, nonverbal, they still could go sit with them, hold their hand, talk to them. They were still there. But when they die, and they are truly gone; there is kind of a shock that can happen with that even though they’ve been expecting it for a long time.
Sometimes we encourage families we are working with; they may not know what to say to their loved one who is approaching the end of life. And so sometimes we help them by suggesting that they say what they need to say while that person is still with them. And that can include I love you, thank you, forgive me, I forgive you and sometimes, they have already said those things, or they’ve said them in their own way. Sometimes with family tensions it’s hard to say those things. They are not maybe used to it. Those are sort of four core things that I find as chaplain, I’m sure Guy does too, people can struggle with those things sometimes. And it’s a relief to have said those things to people that mean so much to us in our lives. So, the golden rule is try to say what you need to say and that’s for your benefit as well as the person who is dying.
Host: Thank you both for that answer. And along those lines, Guy, I was going to ask you when we are doing what Pat has suggested and we’re speaking with our loved one near the end; do you advise families to say goodbye? When my mother passed, we had a long line of people that had loved this amazing woman for years and we all said our goodbyes. Do you recommend that? Because some people don’t like that idea. They think it makes the person who is dying more afraid or more fearful of this. what do you think of that?
Guy: Speaking to the genuineness of the situation, depending on individuals’ faith traditions, they may not say goodbye, they may say I will see you on the other side or I will see you soon and so I don’t know if that’s giving comfort to their loved one or to themselves or both. But I think it is important to say goodbye knowing that it speaks to the finality of death.
Host: Pat, we’ve all heard about the stages of grief. What are those stages? Is there a duration for each? Is this an actual thing?
Pat: We’ve all inherited that Elizabeth Kubler Ross five stage thing which is denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I would say modern grief support and therapy has more to do with acknowledging that it’s not linear stages that you are going through. Often you are hitting all those things at the same time or maybe one at a time. One is the more dominant emotion that you are sort of feeling. Grief is messy. I think that surprises people. I think they think – they want it to be linear because it hurts. It’s so painful. We want to have a formula to get through it. I lead a lot of support – grief support groups and the number one question that probably gets asked is when is this going to stop hurting so badly. When am I going to get through this whatever point they feel like they are. And you have to just say it will take as long as it takes. And it’s a process. It’s a healing, just like if you had a physical injury, it would take a while if you had a broken leg, it would take a while for that leg to heal.
And you would have to wear a cast and there would be painful parts to the healing. With our emotional health, it’s the same thing. When we suffer a loss of a loved one, it takes time to heal. And so I think some people because we’ve all kind of culturally, we’ve absorbed this stages of grief knowledge; we think that there’s something wrong if oh well I already passed that stage of anger and now months later, I’m angry all over again. And they may feel as if they’ve slid all the way back to the beginning. And what I often say to my folks that come to the groups is no, it’s a sign of healing even if you feel like you are revisiting something that you did before. There are triggers that trigger us. Sometimes anniversaries do that or special days. And then we feel like we’re feeling a lot of that raw pain of early grief. But it’s just a normal part of the process.
I have a favorite flyer that I hand out and the left hand side of the pages, it lists a lot of these linear phases, stages of grief and then on the other side, it lists them, but it’s covered with a scribble. It looks like a spider’s web of scribbles pointing to the fact that you may feel this on one day, this on another and then every five minutes, maybe you feel like you are going through different aspects of this journey with grief. And it’s crazy making. Because you want it to be orderly. But it’s not. It’s kind of a mess.
Guy: Melanie, I’d like to add, Pat said it very eloquently that the five stages of grief were developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the misconception was that her observations were with patients that were given a terminal illness. So, it was the stages that a person is going through as they come to terms with their terminal illness. It’s much different grieving when you have lost someone. So, it’s a little bit of apples and oranges in terms of grieving process and as Pat said, there is the more contemporary – that was 50 years ago. So, there has been a lot of research and better understanding of the grieving process and one theory is around the tasks of grieving and kind of coming to terms with your loss. Adjusting to the world without your loved one and then finding a way of having kind of an enduring connection with them in the reality that they are physically no longer present and then but yet maintaining and then starting to grow new emotional sustaining relationships.
So, that’s kind of more of the contemporary idea about loss and grief.
Host: That’s so interesting Guy that you pointed out that this was really for someone with a terminal illness. So, it is a bit different and certainly in this day. So, in your experience, do you have a best way to come to terms once you have lost a loved one? Is there any differences? Of course with kids, we have to help them get through that. But give us your best advice for coming to terms whether you think that support groups or local groups or books. How would you like us to come to those terms?
Guy: I think it is going back to how we started our conversation in that first of all, accepting that everybody grieves differently. There’s no right way to do it. It’s hard work and it is work. Using Pat’s analogy of mending a broken bone; you can kind of let it run its course and eventually it will heal, or you can get physical therapy and help to move through the process faster. And that’s what I equate to grief work is about is being intentional about working through your grief. And everybody is going to be different. That may mean for one person it’s working in their woodshop of doing artistic work or others it may mean – who are more emotive in how – and need to talk about their feelings and process through speaking and talking. It could be talking to a therapist, a counselor, a group.
So, again, it’s kind of discovering what works for you. We have a bereavement department and they offer bereavement support services and sometimes just having a consultation with a bereavement coordinator and saying heh this is what’s been going on for me. Is this normal? And having someone who is a professional kind of normalize and then develop a physical therapy plan. How are you going to move forward and work and be intentional about moving through your grief.
Pat: And just to add to why Guy said. Finding a support group or a counselor is extremely helpful. Whether it’s through a hospice or a local faith community. A lot of times there are groups. Books can be a form of bibliotherapy where you maybe read a memoir or a book about a specific kind of grief that relates to you. And that can be very helpful. I think the benefit of a support group or a counselor or even reading a book is that it validates what you are going through. And in the loneliness of grief, where you feel like maybe you are the only one in the world that’s feeling this; that’s really beneficial and important that you are validated with what you are going through.
Host: Such important information from both of you. So, Guy, I’d like to start with you, first last word, what advice would you give someone today who is coping with loss?
Guy: Don’t do it alone. Seek out someone that can if nothing else, just be present with you. Try to educate yourself about the grieving process. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of kind of misinformation about what it’s supposed to be and what it’s supposed to look like. Grief is not depression. Although it gets oftentimes misconstrued as being I’m depressed when in fact, someone is legitimately grieving. Be gentle on yourself. It’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s hard work and it won’t resolve overnight. Giving yourself the time.
Host: And Pat, last word to you. What would you like the listeners to take away from this about grief counseling available at EvergreenHealth and how best to grieve a loved one and know that life does go on and that that’s how they would want it.
Pat: I think just to remember that grief is a process. It’s a healing process even though it’s so painful it’s hard to believe at first. It will take as long as it takes. Go really easy on yourself. Focus on a lot of good self-care. Find others who are supportive whether that’s in a group or just supportive friends. And feel your feelings. Don’t use substance abuse to numb the pain. Try to feel the feelings and ask for what you need. That’s often hard to do. But people really want to help but they don’t know how so ask for what you need and whether it’s a support group at Evergreen or individual grief counseling. There are resources out there in the community and you just need to find them and use them. And I think they’ll really help someone go through this process. And actually feel hope.
Host: I think that’s really what it’s all about and so well said Pat. Thank you both of you for joining us today. Really important information. What a great podcast and that wraps up this episode of Check-up Chat with EvergreenHealth. To learn about welcoming support groups near you and other helpful resources head on over to our website to learn more. If you found this podcast informative, and I know that you did; please share on your social channels. Share with friends and family that have lost loved ones. There was a lot of great information in this podcast and it will help somebody else. You know that it will. So, please share and be sure not to miss all the other interesting podcasts in our library. Until next time, I’m Melanie Cole.