In one week I could sit with ten different people who are about to or will have lost someone they love. I am witness to the dying process on a daily basis and I see death often. I see ache, and pain and I spend a lot of time doing my best to comfort someone else. I have found, over time, some words that can help comfort someone and I have learned the extent of my role in that regard and when I need to hand over their grief to someone more qualified. But while I know someone else has more skills to provide that extensive support, when the moment arises, you cannot walk away. Mostly I provide strong arms for hugging, a shoulder to cry on, ears to listen and a heart that is full and open providing a safe place for someone else to fall apart and break down. I have done this so many times, I can’t help wondering when my heart space will fill up, when there will no longer be room. But the heart is an amazing place… and at least in mine… there is always room.
As I have said in a previous blog, “grief is a dance in uncomfortable shoes” and what that means to me, is that you have to move through it, the music changes, sometimes the beat seems a bit off and even once you think you have figured it all out, you realize your feet hurt and your shoes are uncomfortable. Grief does not come in a “one size fits all” package; it truly is unique for all who experience it. Of course there are similarities, but how we process it, how loss affects us individually, or the length of time it takes to navigate is not the same, therefore our response to those going through it, cannot be the same. The same advice does not always apply and that is a part of the dance; knowing what to say and what might be appropriate is an important part of helping someone else through their grieving process.
There is another side to grief as well, which is not related to the patient or the family, but to the ones who care for and support them. I have witnessed long-term caregivers cry at the bedside, and while some embrace them as family, others don’t see their pain. I see their pain. I respect the connection they have made with the patient, and I reach out to them because I know that feeling well. I provide comfort if able, I ask the bereavement team to reach out and I pray that someone in their world is hugging them tightly that day.
I too feel grief. No matter the width of the window of time I have with a patient and their loved ones is, when they take their last breaths, I too feel loss. Sometimes it is for the family, sometimes it is simply for the loss of a life and often times it reminds me of my own personal losses and it brings everything back up to the surface.
I recently witnessed a loss so deep for someone that I came home afterwards and just curled up under my covers and didn’t come back out for hours, only to start the next day in tears. I struggled the whole day to keep it together and yet I saw 6 patients, each needing me to be fully present. What has occurred to me quite clearly is that I need to work through my own grief and while we were mostly strangers initially, the grief I feel when someone passes is real, especially when I have sat at their bedside, held their hands before they died and hugged the ones left behind so tightly, I thought I might break them. My pain is real too and I am continually trying to find the best ways for me to work through that.
What I have become acutely aware of is the depth of the work that we do and the weight each loss has upon us. And while we might go through each day feeling like we have let it go and moved on, the truth is… these deaths are like a coat that seems to get heavier with time and sometimes we can take it off, but other times… it becomes too difficult to remove and the weight is far more than we can bear.
It is these moments when I remind myself how important it is to let the people you love know you are having a tough day (or week, or month) and that what you need is someone to hear you, to ask you how your day was, and to provide comfort and support. It is important for us to acknowledge that our grief is real and it absolutely must be addressed. I have found that it takes time to process each loss we experience. It cannot be put aside for a later date, disregarded as not important, or ignored completely. Our grief is real, and in order for us to continue to do the work we do; we too have to take the steps to process our own feelings.
How do I do this? Well... I am a work in progress, I keep trying to find what is best for me. Taking a long walk always helps, sometimes I just check out and sit quietly alone with my thoughts trying to process them, sometimes I reach out to friends or family in hopes they have the stomach to hear what I have to say, and I just signed up for yoga classes. My go-to place is always the ocean... I go there often. For those of you caring for someone else, make sure to take care of YOU... your grief is real.