Ok, so you are a professional. A professional nurse. A professional hospice aide. A professional chaplain. A professional Social Worker. A professional…(you fill in the blank). And as a professional, you’ve undoubtedly been told the indisputable truth that if you don’t keep healthy boundaries with your patients and their families, then you aren’t going to make it very long in this business. You may have even been told not to get close to your patients, at least not too close. But dang it all if you didn’t. You didn’t mean to, of course. But something happened in your heart over time. And one day you realized that you cared deeply for them. Maybe even loved them. And then when the patient died that unwelcomed friend called grief came calling.
Some of your colleagues may have been sympathetic. Still others may have chastised you for allowing yourself to cross the professional boundaries and let yourself feel personally for the patient. I’m with the first group. That’s why I want to share some simple suggestions for how you can face grief in a healthy way as a professional Hospice caregiver.
Kick guilt out the door. If you are feeling guilty for not being a sterile professional, stop it! The reason you are grieving is because you have the capacity to love. Those who do not love do not have the capacity to grieve. Grieving is the other side of the love coin. Hospice, in particular, needs professionals who love. Every patient, family member and friend that we come into contact with is facing grief in one form or another, at one level or another. And love is what they need. So stop feeling guilty for being a loving individual. Keep your love alive.
Permit yourself to mourn. Grief is what happens in our heart, mind, body, spirit and soul. Mourning is expressing on the outside what is going on in the inside. For many, this includes crying, but it can be expressed through a myriad of ways…exercise, music, art, carpentry, journaling, gardening, you name it. If you want to be healthy, you cannot just bottle up your grief inside and then drive down the road to the next patient. If you want to be healthy, you must mourn each grief that affects you. So, let yourself mourn.
Permit yourself not to mourn. Moment of truth telling…I didn’t grieve every deceased patient I had. For whatever reason, some patients and families knitted themselves in my heart and others didn’t. It didn’t mean I didn’t care for the others, it’s just that some patients and their families touched my heart differently than others. If you can relate to this, then I suggest that you permit yourself not to mourn those who didn’t touch your heart. It doesn’t mean you weren’t caring. It doesn’t mean you are hard-hearted. It doesn’t mean you didn’t give your best. It just happens. So don’t beat yourself up about it. Just move forward.
Mourn for who you grieve for. Not every tear that is shed at a funeral is for the one in the casket up front. Some tears are for grief experienced long before the deceased died. Similarly, I’ve also seen caregivers cry at the bedside of a patient when really their tears were about unresolved grief in their own life. I have even seen patients and family members end up caring for the caregiver because of his/her mourning. This, of course, isn’t healthy. If you mourn deeply for every patient and their family, you might want to consider investigating your own past grief history and if there are any ways you might need to address them in a healthy way. But if you are mourning for the one you are grieving for, it is OK to mourn in an authentic way. Don’t repress it but do express it when appropriate.
Take care of you. I don’t have to tell you that you are in a stressful profession. If you want to make it for the long haul without burning out, you have to be intentional about self-care. There must be times in which you refill your tanks. In fact, you need strategies everyday to do this. Some will be big like vacations and “mental health” days. But many will be small like taking a walk, reading a book (that has nothing to do with dying people), taking your allotted breaks to just breathe, getting plenty of sleep, etc. On more than one occasion, I have had times when the deaths of patients I cared about piled up on me. I realized I was more cranky and didn’t really want to make visits. So to take care of myself, I have often taken a couple of days off around a weekend to just do something else. By doing so, I was able to mourn and be rejuvenated. I don’t know what fills your tank, but whatever it is, DO IT…or you will have nothing to give.
Join Team Grief. I don’t know what the mascot would be for a team named Grief. Probably Eeyore sitting under a Weeping Willow. But either way, no one is excited about joining Team Grief and if they are…they need some serious help! However, one of the best ways to mourn is to allow other people in – to listen, to support, to care. In our profession, it is easy to be isolated as you travel in your car from one patient to another. It is easy to be disconnected from your colleagues. What I am suggesting, however, is that Hospice needs to be a place where grief can be openly mourned, knowing that through mourning there is healing. So even though joining Team Grief doesn’t sound very attractive, I hope you will sign up. Others need you and you will need them someday too.
So those are just a few of my suggestions. I’m sure you have others. If so, write a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The more we work together at this, the better we become…day after day after day.