Monday Memo — Helping Those Who Grieve

Romans 12:15 tells us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” The latter can be the hardest to accomplish effectively. To help you in this area, I thought this blog would be a blessing to most of my readers. It’s written by Amy Givler, a family physician in Monroe, Louisiana, who works part-time at an indigent-care hospital.

Amy Givler, MD

I wasn’t expecting my mother to die. None of us were. Though 86, she was active and fully involved in life.

She had gone to the emergency room with chest pain the evening before, and when her second troponin level was slightly elevated, they decided to admit her. With the admitting physician on his way, and my mom insisting she do so, my sister left the ER to drive our 92-year-old father home. I was 1,500 miles away and monitoring the situation by telephone.

At 2:30 a.m. my phone rang. “Your mother has taken a turn for the worse. Can you come here right now?”

“No, I’m in Louisiana.”

“Your sister, then?” she asked.

“Look, I’m a physician and I know what you mean when you say, ‘a turn for the worse.’ What is going on?”

She paused. “They are coding your mother.”

And that is how I learned of my mother’s death. Few 86-year-olds survive a code. That I knew. For the 20 minutes I stayed on the phone while the code was going on, I sat with my head on my husband’s shoulder and tried to convince my brain my mother was gone. When the nurse said they had called the code, it was no surprise.

I share this story, fellow healthcare professionals, because now I’ve been on both sides of “the telling.” Like you, perhaps, I was taught to say, “Your loved one has taken a turn for the worse,” because we don’t want frantic family members getting into cars and crashing on the way to the hospital. But now that I’ve been the recipient of that phrase, I think it is even more helpful than that.

The phrase, “She’s taken a turn for the worse,” softens the blow. It doesn’t mislead, but it also doesn’t dump the whole bucket of bad news.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to extend that same kindness to my father, sister and several other family members in the next few hours of phone calls. In my sadness, I blurted out, “Mom died!” over and over. Forgive me, Lord.

During the next sad week, several people shared with me their interaction with the healthcare profession at the time of their own mothers’ deaths. One man couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice while recounting how he heard of his 93-year-old mother’s death. “Her doctor was so casual about it. He said to me, ‘Well, she lived a good life.’ That was how he told me she died. That was not the right thing to say.”

No matter how old your mother is, when she dies you lose a connection to your past, to your beginning—your infancy and childhood. I’ve grieved several family members and friends over the years, but losing my mother is in a different category of loss.

By no means am I ready to expound on the process of grief. Mom’s death is far too recent. But here are some thoughts on what is helpful—or not helpful—in the early stages of grief as a family member, a friend and a healthcare professional.

Helpful

  • Being Present – Friends and family gathered for the funeral. Having people nearby who also loved Mom was a great comfort. I wasn’t much of a conversationalist that first week, but I was glad to be around fellow mourners.
  • Prayer – Prayer is a gift, so offering it is valuable. Better even than saying you will pray in the future is to pray right then and there.
  • Remembrances – When Mom’s friends said, “Your mom loved you so much,” it was a balm to my soul. When they shared stories or funny memories, I drank it up. Likewise, cards, letters, emails, texts and Facebook messages all blessed me.
  • Help – “Let me know if I can do something for you,” may sound weak when spoken, but I loved hearing it because it communicated care and concern. Likewise, when people ran errands, brought flowers or made meals, they were a great support.

Not Very Helpful

  • “How are you doing?” – When I was asked this question the week after Mom’s death, I got confused. I would think, “How am I doing? I don’t know. I feel fuzzy. What do I say? What should I say?”
  • “How old was your mom?” – When I was asked this question, it felt like a poke in my ribs. It sounded like, “She was old, remember? You should be glad she lived as long as she did.” But I wasn’t ready to appreciate the many years we had been together. Right then I just missed her.
  • Long Phone Calls – I spent so many hours on the phone the first few days, telling family and friends Mom had died and sharing the details of the funeral plans, that I simply didn’t have the energy to chat. If you call someone—or receive a phone call from someone—whose loved one has just died, try to keep it to five minutes.

Miserably Unhelpful

  • “I know how you feel.” – This statement grated on my raw nerves. Even if you are a 58-year-old woman who lost her Jesus-following 86-year-old mother, you do not know how I feel. Why, even I do not know how I feel. Unfortunately this comment usually preceded a recital of the person’s own experience with grief, and with it the expectation I would become the comforter.
  • Don’t be this person.

As a physician, I’m often asked for resources for the newly grieving. My favorite two books are both short—and shortness is essential in times of emotional upheaval.

  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis – Written as a journal after his wife’s death, this book is filled with Lewis’ emotions, doubts and, ultimately, his rediscovered faith.
  • Good Grief by Granger Westberg – Westberg describes what happens in grief, as the person adjusts to the loss of something or someone important.

An excellent summary of the difference between sympathy and empathy is Brene Brown’s YouTube video “On Empathy.”

Grieving people need empathy—a coming to be with—rather than sympathy—a looking in from the outside. One quote from that video sticks with me, “Rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘At least….’” When we try to cheer people up with a sentence that begins with “At least…,” we are trivializing the pain they are feeling right now.

Grieving is a process, and it hurts. But the hurting is an important part of the process. As healthcare professionals—and also as friends and family members—we can help guide people as they walk the pathway of grief.

Avoiding the “Not Very Helpful” and “Miserably Unhelpful” words will assist people in accepting their loss, with the goal of ultimately pointing them toward peace.

© Copyright WLL, INC. 2017. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.