Grief journey is never easy, pastoral care ministers told

Photo Caption: In prayer at the Pastoral Care Day of Reflection are Anna Sykes of Holy Family Parish and Provena Hospice, Danville; Lou Lowe of Sacred Heart, Peoria; and Georgia Kelm of St. Teresa, Earlville.

By: By Jennifer Willems

There is no escaping grief.

It touches everyone for different reasons, in different ways and for different amounts of time. There is only one thing that’s certain about it, according to Donna Medina, vice president of OSF Hospice.

“Our faith gives us the confidence to know that when someone dies they’re going to be at rest with the Lord and we’re secure in that knowledge,” she told nearly 100 pastoral care ministers who gathered at Barrack’s Cater Inn in Peoria last Saturday for the Pastoral Care Day of Reflection.

Sponsored by the diocesan Office of Family Life, the day was designed to help those who bring Communion to the sick and aged members of their faith communities to develop a better understanding of grief, how to manage it, and when it may be out of control.

“I WISH I could stand up here and tell you there is a magic formula and there’s a solution for everyone’s grief,” Medina said. “But there is no magic formula. Everybody grieves differently.”

She explained that grief occurs for many reasons and encouraged the pastoral care ministers to be sensitive to that.

“We have patients who are grieving their loss of health,” she said. “We know people who are grieving because they’re getting older. They’re looking back and wondering, ‘Did my life have any meaning? Did I do any good?'”

People also experience grief when their friends are gone or because they can’t do all the things they once did, Medina told them.
And if someone is sick, that person and their family members will start to grieve long before death occurs, she said.

BECAUSE it is individual and unique, there is no right or wrong way to go through grief and no pattern that everyone will follow, according to Medina. She noted that some people will want to change everything after a loved one dies while others want everything left exactly as it was.

“It’s a difficult journey with some real hills and valleys — and that’s OK,” she said.

What matters most is helping people say the things that matter most:
l “Please forgive me.”
l “I forgive you.”
l “I love you.”
l “Thank you.”

“It’s very important that we speak care about,” Medina said, advising the pastoral care ministers to encourage people who are sick or dying to mend rifts with friends and family, if possible.

SAYING goodbye is also important and can be a real gift to those who are preparing for death, she said.

Medina told of one hospice patient who wanted to see her husband, who was incarcerated, before her death. Since that couldn’t be arranged, the hospice staff set up a video link that allowed the couple to say what they needed to say to one another. The woman died an hour later.

People struggling with grief may find journaling to be a good way to relieve stress. “Encourage them to keep it private and write anything they’re feeling,” Medina said.

She added that those who are very social may need more time to reflect, while those who are on the quiet side may need to find a way to be with people and share their stories. Helping them to express themselves, create memories and develop new routines can be a great help to people at times like this, she said.

“Be patient. Be a presence,” Medina told the pastoral care workers. “Let them know you care.”

EXPRESSIONS of sympathy also require care, said Medina, who offered some suggestions for what to say and what not to say:
l “‘How are you doing?’ can be either bad or good,” she explained. “If you ask, you have to be sincere and really listen to how they’re doing. You need to be prepared for what you might hear in response.”

l “What do you need?” This is not specific enough, Medina said. Offering to bring dinner on Friday and staying for a visit, for example, allows those who are grieving to say, “Yes, I’d love some company” or “Thank you, but not now.”

l “Life goes on. You will be OK.” While this may be true, people probably won’t be ready to hear this right away, if ever, she said.

l “It’s time to get on with your life. It’s been a year.” Medina said that most people won’t be able to truly start moving on until they’ve been through all the “firsts” without their loved one, including the first Christmas, first birthday and first anniversary. Give them time.

“Think before you speak,” she said. “Worst case scenario, pat their hand and give them a hug.”

BECAUSE grief involves physical, social, emotional, psychological and spiritual reactions to loss, it is normal and natural to feel tired and irritable, experience changes in appetite, or have feelings of emptiness.

Medina said signs that grief may be out of control include a dependence on alcohol or drugs, an inability to trust and feel safe, low self-esteem, night terrors, withdrawing from others and normal activities, and disruptive behavior. Others include extreme weight gain or loss, an inability to reconcile their anger with God or a loss of faith, a belief that life is not worth living or that letting go of their grief would not be appropriately respectful to the one who died.

“Research suggests that 15 to 20 percent of Americans who suffer a loss experience prolonged grief,” Medina said.

People who are displaying the signs of this kind of grief must be approached carefully, she emphasized. She suggested that the pastoral care ministers say, “It appears you’re struggling a little bit,” and then offer to put them in touch with clergy or other resources if that would be helpful.
“I can’t tell you this journey is an easy one,” Medina said. “I can tell you that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but you have to look for it.”

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