Understanding Our Grief: Death & Loss in Geriatric Healthcare

All healthcare professionals understand the concept and undeniable knowledge that death is inevitable. But, it is something on the forefront of understanding for more people than others. As professionals that work in the geriatric healthcare field, death and loss of various levels are something we deal with quite possibly on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean we get used to it, and it often becomes something we do not address.

In geriatric care, we often form close attachments to clients and their families. How can we not? If you’re reading this – you are most likely in the recreation field. As a professional that aids clients in their leisure lifestyles, we get to know our clients in ways many might not get to see. We also get to interact with families in settings such as parties, celebrations, summer cookouts – places outside stuffy meeting rooms and get to know them as people, sometimes becoming extended families of our own.

It is sometimes assumed that healthcare workers are immune to grief and that the more we are around it, the impact will lessen with each accumulated loss. We obviously know that isn’t true. Grief is not only around death, but it’s also around the changes staff see in clients – whether it be loss of mobility, dementia, or transitioning out of a day program and entering long term care. Everyone experiences grief differently and each staff member may have a different reaction to the loss or death of the person. This grief may cause a range of emotions. Some common emotions include anger, sadness, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, and numbness.

So knowing all of this, how do we understand and cope through this grief?

A wonderful way to acknowledge death and celebrate it as a part of life and our work, we can and should be honoring and remembering the person after their passing. Going on throughout your day as if nothing, as happened, can be a huge stressor on one’s life and work.

Here are some ways to acknowledge and honor
someone after their passing:

  1. Perform a ritual when the person dies such as placing a silk rose on the bed, opening the window, or coming together in the room to say a prayer or blessing.
  2. Institute a ritual to honor the body. For example, place a special Dignity Quilt over the stretcher just before the body is removed from the room. Some residents and family members, management, staff, and volunteers could form an honor guard which accompanies the body to the front door, where a moment of silence or a short prayer is offered before the body leaves the home.
  3. Recognize the loss of each client by placing a photograph of the person or flowers in an appropriate place in the long-term care home or community program.
  4. Provide “grief boxes” with relaxation or spiritual CDs, literature, photos, and sympathy cards, which staff and residents can sign and then send to families.
  5.  Attend the funeral or memorial service, subject to permission from the family.
  6. Hold regular memorial services, or celebrations of life, that are open to families, friends, residents, and staff who wish to attend.

By doing one or all of these rituals, it keeps the care and understanding of grief in the healthcare process and keeps the holistic sense of our jobs and selves intact.

Now that you’ve acknowledged and dealt with the factual death; that isn’t the end of grief. It is a process that only you can understand and acknowledge and not everyone deals with it the same. But, not dealing with it at all can bring turmoil and a loss of self.

Here are some simple ways to support your own grief and loss
in the workplace:

  1. Acknowledge your grief: Recognize your reactions are normal and pay attention to your feelings. How are you responding to the loss?
  2. Talk About it! You are NOT alone. Healthcare isn’t a one-person show, it can be assumed many people are feeling similarly to you and being able to reminisce about your client with co-workers can aid in finding peace and closure.
  3. Practice Relaxation: During times of grief we tend to put our leisure and self-care to the side, when in fact we should be doing to the opposite. Do things that make you feel less stressed (go for a walk, workout, eat a good meal, listen to music)
  4. Recognize your positive impact: During death and dying many times we focus on what we didn’t do, or didn’t say or could have done better. As healthcare workers, we want what is best for our clients – throughout all journeys. You aided in the quality of life of your participant more than you know. Reflect on the rewards you received from caring for that participant.

Overall, recreation/healthcare workers need to acknowledge and address our feelings of grief, and sadness and ultimately cope with death and loss in our careers. We need to advocate for ways to honor our clients that holistically aid them, their families, ourselves and others in our facilities. And lastly, we need to be thankful for the time we had with our clients, and recognize all the good we have done for them.

Additional Antidotes & Resources:

A wonderful way to improve death and dying practices and rituals in your facility is to become certified as an End of Life Doula. I am not sure about you, but when I worked in long term care, I would bring in music, read stories, or hold people’s hands as they took their last journeys. Death is something we tend to be afraid of, but it’s something we all need to face. End of Life/Death Doulas are professionals that aid people along this journey in various facets and could be a tremendous shift in thinking about death in your work and in your life.

For more information on becoming certified please visit: https://www.inelda.org/

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