A licensed clinical social worker offers her top tips for supporting grieving patients.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | April 11, 2018 | 3 min read
By Jane Schindler, LCSW-C ACHP-SW, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
A strong and difficult emotion
The profound grief felt after or before the death of someone can be one of life’s most difficult emotions. Your expression of care and compassion can provide much relief to the person suffering. However, if you aren’t comfortable with the strong emotions associated with grieving you may feel uncertain how to best help the bereaved.
There’s no right way to grieve
Keep in mind that grief isn’t a disease, or something to “get over,” stages and time frames don’t matter. There’s no “right” way to grieve and tears and sorrow are a natural part of grief. Many people believe that if they don’t go through the “stages” once ascribed in the bereavement literature, they’ve failed to properly grief.
Through supporting patients through their grief for many years, here are my top tips:
1.) Allow patients to express their sorrow
As a society we aren’t comfortable with this display of pain, and in our effort to help we may minimize a person’s pain rather than give them permission to express it.
A.) Show genuine concern for this person by asking how they’re doing, and tell them you’re sorry for the death of their loved one.
B.) Attending the funeral or service can mean a great deal to the bereaved.
C.) Don’t suggest it has been long enough (since the death), question why they aren’t over it yet, or that they should be thankful for what they have left.
Healthcare providers don’t want to see others suffer, but grief can lead to transformation, to something more meaningful, and grief is meant to be felt. Just being with another while they are grieving can be powerful medicine.
2.) Listen to their story
Part of one’s grief is being able to tell the story. Patients may tell you the story of their loved one’s death more than once. J. William Worden, PhD, has written in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy that one must experience the reality of the death. Telling the story is one way a person experiences this reality.
3.) Offer your patient resources
Encourage your patient to seek support during this process. Support groups can help the bereaved feel less alone and can help normalize some of their feelings. Individual therapy can be helpful because it allows them to process the pain they’re experiencing and can provide a different reflection on their relationship with the deceased. If you have a social worker or other support staff in your practice refer your patient to them.
4.) Consider grief related symptoms
Patients may come to you with a number of complaints including headache, loss of appetite, weight loss, insomnia, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating. These symptoms may not be disease related, but rather grief related. Take into account their grief as you assess these symptoms.
5.) Screen for depression
Grief can often look like depression, so it’s important to distinguish between the two and screen for the possibility of depression. Depression generally is inward thoughts and interferes with life. Signs of depression include little enjoyment or pleasure in activities that once brought joy, a lack of hope regarding the future, feelings of being a failure or worthless, an inability to perform daily tasks and routines, inability to get out of bed or go to work, or feeling that others would be better off without you. Depression requires a different intervention and treatment.
The bereaved will, slowly and over time, come out of the darkness to find a different type of peace in their new unchartered life. Where they travel and when they get there is up to them. In the meantime be kind, listen, and hand them a tissue.