Published on May 31, 2016

Help the Dying With Grief

By Dr. Ann O’Donnell, Hospice & Palliative Care Medical Director

No Matter How Long Ago

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape. - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has
taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have
been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.

Over my fifteen years of providing hospice care, I have been challenged. We are a society who does not want to address death as a natural process. Even though it is a natural part of our lives, we will endure grief when we lose someone we love.

How do we prepare to lose someone we love? How do we envision what life will look like without our loved one? What will I do without my best friend? Who will I hug before I go to bed at night? Who will make my coffee in the morning? Trying to ignore the loss or our grief-related feelings,does not make that struggle go away--no matter how long ago it was.

In the early years of my hospice career, an elderly man was admitted to our hospice services for what turned out to be most of two years. He came to hospice because his impression was that once you were in hospice, you would not live much longer. Not true, yet that was what he was searching for.

Who Was Counseling Whom?

 “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for is that which has been your delight.” - Kahlil Gibran.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you
shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has
been your delight - Kahlil Gibran.

He lived alone. He had been forced to retire. His one child did not live close and their contact was limited, but that was “just the way it is.” He could not mow his yard or shovel his driveway without chest pain. Despite our advice to avoid those activities, he continued to try to do them so that he could hasten his death. It didn’t work.

After he had been with hospice for six months, the regulations call for a face-to-face meeting with the doctor. My pre-visit assessment was that this man must be depressed, but he wasn’t. He was very matter of fact about his situation.

For more than eighteen months I visited him every sixty days. Our first meeting was a long ten minutes. I wasn’t sure how to address what I had heard about him. What if he brought up the fact that he did not believe in God--did not believe in prayer or an afterlife? That first day he let me off the hook. No real tough conversation topics.

Eventually, I found myself looking forward to our time together. I was staying longer and longer. Initially it was small talk about the weather. During the spring and summer months, it was about important things like the Chicago Cubs. We listened to his music collection on cassette tapes. He showed me his vacation pictures. I was completely engaged in our conversations. He always seemed to have a special “life lesson” for me. I started to feel the professional boundary lines become blurred. Who was counseling whom?

I Thought We Needed to Talk About Him Dying

“There's only one thing that can heal the heart... Only one... It's love.” - Masashi Kishimoto

There's only one thing that can heal the heart.
Only one... It's love - Masashi Kishimoto.

During one of our last meetings he seemed sad. Finally! He is going to give me my opportunity. How did he really feel about dying? We needed to talk about this! I thought we needed to talk about him dying; however, I was wrong. It was not about him dying.

On this day he wanted to talk about his wife. This was a new topic for us. His wife had died several years prior and he missed her. He did not state it, but missing his wife was not the only reason why he was sad. He knew that his time was finally nearing the end. He could feel it in his heart.

On this day he realized that when he died, he would no longer be able to look at her picture, he wouldn’t be able to think of his memories of his wife. He admitted he had never talked about his feelings of loss when she died. After all, death is natural. I cried along with him.

Grieve and Find Complete Healing

Our grief and the way we respond to it are as individual as our DNA. That is why grief counseling is so personal and important. It took almost two years for my patient to feel as though he wanted to talk to me about the death of his wife fifteen years prior. I started my doctor-patient relationship with this man full of preconceived notions about how I was going to help him. When, in fact, he was the teacher and taught me a life lesson about grief.

Because you have not faced your end of life experience, you really do not know how you will best support another emotionally until you have built a relationship. Eventually the timing will be right for the person to open their heart, give the grief attention, and find complete healing.

Get more information or contact a Genesis Grief Support staff member at 563-421-5000.

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