By Deanna Upchurch

Death is the ultimate equalizer; all of us have grieved or will grieve the death of a parent, a spouse, a dear friend or a family pet. It’s important to understand the grieving process, and learn suggestions for grieving individuals and those who love them.

The commonality of grief

While every loss is as unique as each grieving individual, many people report feelings of losing control and hopelessness. Even noticing your late mother’s favorite perfume on her sweater, as one HopeHealth client did, is a sensory feeling of grief that can be quite emotional and upsetting. There are ups and downs, waves and spurts of grief. Grief is unpredictable. The hardest part of grief? Even people with large families and loving friends feel isolated and lonely: Relatives are immersed in their own grief and friends attend the funeral, deliver casseroles and then fade away. Community members who access HopeHealth’s free grief counseling support groups, whether sporadically or long-term, find comfort in sharing their stories with others experiencing grief. Hearing the stories of grief and loss from bereavement counselors often comforts bereaved individuals.

Gentle and nonjudgmental self-care – such as yoga, meditation and spiritual reflection – is an essential step in the healing process for bereaved individuals and for their network of loving friends and family.

Offer unconditional support; avoid criticism and advice “You’re young; you’ll get married again.” “It was God’s will.” “He’s in a better place now.” Such comments are awkward, because people often don’t know what to say until they’ve walked in grief themselves. If you’re unsure of what to say or do, remember that less is more; offer a hug, be a good listener and don’t try to fix things. Say: “I am so sorry; I am here for you in your grief.”

Grief counselors will say to clients: “I’m not here to fix the situation … teach me about your loved one, and what you’re feeling.” Every death can elicit grief, but the complicated deaths of stillborn infants, step-relatives, suicide victims, individuals who succumbed to their addictions, motorcyclists who wear no helmet, gay or lesbian partners/spouses, etc., present special difficulties. When family and friends minimize the loss, blame the deceased person for his or her life choices and/or distance themselves, grieving individuals experience what can be described as “disenfranchised grief.”

Helping children and adolescents handle grief

Everyone, no matter their age, grieves in their own way. With shorter attention spans, children vacillate between wanting to talk about it and wanting to move on to something less overwhelming. Be honest and use concrete language to avoid confusion; avoid saying, for example: “We lost Grandma,” as children will think she can be found. As children move into adolescence, their understanding of death’s permanence deepens. While there’s no right way to grieve, bereavement support services can greatly help individuals move from grief to healing.

Deanna Upchurch is Director of Community Services at HopeHealth. She can be reached at (508) 957-0268 or DUpchurch@HopeHealthCo.org.

Support groups help even the strong-willed “I always thought support groups were for weak people, and I’m strong,” recalls Janet Carmichael of Kingston, who eventually turned to a support group for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia offered by Hope Dementia & Alzheimer’s Services, part of the HopeHealth family of services. While managing all the legal, medical, and social service providers for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Rosaria “Sara” Carmichael, Janet realized her mother could not remain in her own home. Sara had called the police because she was cold and ran the microwave for 76 minutes with no food inside. “I went to the support group when I was pulling my hair out; I really needed help,” recalls Janet, who experienced anticipatory grief even before her mother died. Just as grieving is best done in the company of others who understand, the caregiver support group meetings were very helpful for Janet, who attended monthly meetings for a few years. Through those meetings, she discovered that her ill, but not yet dying, mother could receive HopeHealth hospice care. Of the support group, she says, “It’s the best thing; you need to get some support, you cannot do it alone.”