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Grief & Loss

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10 Helpful Grieving & Self-Care Tips

By Grief & Loss No Comments

Whether your loved one’s time in hospice has been days long or weeks long, grief can still take you by surprise.

Grief is the natural result of love. When you love deeply and wholly, you open yourself up to the grief that will come when the person you love dies. And while death is a part of life, the certainty of death doesn’t make it any easier.

Focus on hands resting on bed, young person holding elderly person's hand

The simple truth is that it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to NOT “be strong” in the face of loss. It’s okay to give yourself permission to grieve, to give outward expression to the internal anguish of your soul. You need to be free to express your emotions, not hide from them or feel ashamed of them. They are what they are, and they are a natural response to what you’ve lost.

It will take time and intentionality to come to grips with everything you think and feel. The following grieving and self-care tips are meant to assist you and give you useful tools for navigating through the ups and downs of the coming months.

10 Grieving & Self-Care Tips

1. Anticipate feeling a range of emotions.

People experience a wide spectrum of feelings at the loss of a loved one: shock, numbness, denial, confusion, yearning, anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, relief, and more. You will certainly feel some – if not all – of these. It’s normal and natural to do so.

Sad middle-aged man resting head on hands

2. Don’t be afraid of your feelings.

You feel what you feel. It is what it is, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the emotions that may be coursing through you. We all feel loss differently, and there is no comparison because every person and individual relationship is unique. Try not to stifle, ignore, or stuff down your feelings. Instead, accept that you feel what you feel and it’s okay.

3. Give yourself time.

Grief is a journey, not an event. You will need time to come to grips with what life looks like without your loved one. You aren’t necessarily going to spring back into life the way it was before. It’s okay to give yourself a little space and take more breaks. Grief is hard work, and you need time to work through it.

Man siting at desk, writing in journal, expressing himself

4. Find ways to express your grief.

What you do is going to depend on your personality. For some, it’s helpful to go into the backyard and chop wood or spend time at the batting cages whacking the balls over and over again. For others, creative expression is helpful. Many times, journaling, creative writing, painting, drawing, arts & crafts, or other types of self-expression help you make sense of the seemingly senseless feelings going on inside. And if you are a person of faith, prayer, meditation, or worship, these activities can help you express your grief.

5. Take care of yourself.

Most people feel more tired and less energetic when they are grieving. For this reason, it’s important to practice self-care and get plenty of sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, stay hydrated, limit your caffeine intake, and sleep with your bedroom dark and relaxing. Additionally, eat healthy foods and participate in some kind of physical activity on a regular basis.

One thing to watch out for is numbing activities. It may start out as a coping mechanism but beware of allowing numbing activities to distract you from dealing with your grief. Common numbing activities are food, alcohol or drugs, anger, excessive exercise, TV or movies, books, isolating yourself, shopping, or losing yourself in work. While these may help you cope, they won’t help you heal and move forward after a loss.

Older couple walking on beach, holding hands, focus on hands

6. Allow others to walk alongside you.

You don’t have to walk this road alone. In fact, it will be much less stressful if you do accept help from others. There’s an incredible scene in The Return of the King, the third installment of The Lord of the Rings. Throughout all three movies, Samwise Gamgee has faithfully walked alongside his dearest friend, Frodo Baggins. Together, as they seek to destroy a powerful ring and save all of Middle Earth, they face danger and hardships, feel lost and hopeless, and at one point, Sam even fears that Frodo has died. And then, the moment comes. Frodo is so near the end of this incredibly taxing quest – this journey that has sapped him physically, mentally, and emotionally – and he says, “I can’t do this, Sam.” After some fortifying words, Sam says, “I can’t carry it [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is why we need friends along the hard journeys in life. They can’t carry our burdens for us, but they can help carry us along; they can provide the support we need to move forward and find new life and new meaning.

7. Take time to talk about your grief.

Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with a safe person about the emotions swirling around inside you. If you aren’t much of a talker or aren’t ready to be vulnerable with someone, write your thoughts down. However, if talking to friends and family simply isn’t working, then consider the benefits of a grief counselor. Sometimes the grief we feel is so incredibly deep that we need help getting back onto solid ground. If that’s you, it’s okay. You aren’t alone, and there is help.

Man sitting at table with computer, eyes closed, breathing deeply

8. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

During times of grief, we often turn our focus inward. While this tendency is natural, it may also lead to feelings of isolation and intense, singular focus on the loss we have suffered. Cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude and self-care can help you better process a loss by moving your eyes beyond your pain, allowing you to see the good things in life that still remain. Gratitude increases positive emotions and overall well-being, improves sleep, and fosters resilience.

9. Keep your loved one’s memory alive with traditions.

While death deprives us of a loved one’s physical presence, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything we love about that person. Our relationship becomes one based on memory rather than physical presence. So, use traditions to keep a loved one’s memory alive. Our personal traditions encourage us to remember. They comfort us and give us a sense of familiarity and peace. For example, if you and your loved one watched a certain movie every Christmas or birthday, keep the tradition alive as a way to feel close to them.

Young woman sitting with grandparents, looking at photo album and smiling

10. Treasure your memories.

As you grieve and practice self-care, make time to treasure your memories. Write your memories down. Tell the stories to others. Share the essence of the one you loved with those around you and keep their legacy alive. Your memories are your own to cherish forever and will be a continual reserve of peace and comfort. The grief journey is a meandering way, filled with many steps. And part of the journey is traveling back into your memories in order to move forward toward reconciliation. Your loved one may be gone, but their memory need never die.

May these 10 grieving and self-care tips help you along the journey as you grieve the person you love and find your way onto the path of healing.

Parent cupping child's hands as child holds a red, cloth heart

How to Offer Emotional Support to a Dying Child (and Their Family)

By For Caregivers & Families, Grief & Loss No Comments

A child you care about is dying. You want to offer your love and care, but you’re not sure how to go about it. Whether you are a parent, friend, or caregiver, may this guide help you turn your care and concern into action.

When a Child is Dying

In our hearts, we all believe that children aren’t supposed to die. As much as we wish otherwise, the sad truth is that children do die. Confronting this difficult reality is the first step you can take toward helping a dying child. It’s going to take time, so for now, try to accept the reality of the child’s medical condition, if only with your head. You will later come to accept it with your heart.

Little girl in pink dress playing doctor with stuffed bear

As you navigate through a heartbreaking situation, may these 10 insights serve as a guide to loving a child (and their family) through one of life’s most difficult times…the loss of a child.

1. Don’t Underestimate the Child’s Capacity to Understand

Children have the capacity to understand more than we give them credit for. Like adults, they deserve our respect and compassion—and our honesty. Sometimes adults, in an effort to protect themselves, assume that children are incapable of understanding or should be protected from the truth. These adults often don’t talk directly to dying children about their prognoses, which can leave the children feeling alone and isolated.

Children can cope with what they know. They can’t cope with what they don’t know. Dying children deserve an atmosphere that creates open, two-way communication. Many terminally ill children will go back and forth between wanting to know details about their illness and not wanting to acknowledge they are even sick. It is critical to follow the child’s lead. Always listen first as you participate in open dialogue about any feelings, concerns, or questions they might have. If they ask something and you don’t know the answer, simply say, “I don’t know.”

Dad talking kindly to sad young daughter

2. Be Honest with the Child About Their Coming Death

As the child comes to comprehend their illness and its severity, explain to them that they will likely die, making sure to use language they will understand. The conversation may be the hardest thing you have ever done, but honest love is what a dying child needs most.

Depending on their age and developmental maturity, they may not immediately (or ever) fully understand what their illness means. But they will begin to incorporate the notion of death into their remaining life and will have the opportunity to think about it and ask questions. They will also have the privilege of saying goodbye.

Do not try to protect the child by lying about their condition. If a dying child is told they are going to get better but everyone around is acting down and defeated, they will notice. This may make the child feel confused, frustrated, and perhaps angry.

Instead, show your love and respect by being honest and open with them and helping them understand that they are dying.

Parent cupping child's hands as child holds a red, cloth heart

3. Encourage Open Communication, But Do Not Force It

As caring adults, we should encourage honest communication between the child, caregivers, family, and friends. However, we should never force it. Children will naturally “dose” themselves as they encounter the reality of the illness in their life. In other words, they will accept the reality of their circumstances in small doses over time. They aren’t able to take all the information in at once, nor will they want to.

Answer only what the child asks. Don’t overrespond out of your own anxiety. Remember—children will determine with whom they want to share their pain. Often, a child wants to protect their parents or other close adults and will adopt a “chin up” attitude around them. This is a normal response and should be respected.

4. Watch for the Child’s Indirect Communication

Children, particularly seriously ill children, are not always direct about their thoughts and feelings. They may make statements, display behaviors, or ask questions that indirectly suggest their understanding or awareness of the situation. These cues reflect underlying needs and deserve loving responses. Pay special attention to the child’s non-verbal means of trying to communicate any needs or concerns.

Mom kissing her sick daughter's head

5. Tune In to the Dying Child’s Emotions

Aside from the considerable physical toll terminal illness can take, dying also affects a child’s head, heart, and spirit.

While you shouldn’t guess at or make assumptions about a child’s feelings, do be aware that they may experience a variety of emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, and loneliness are just a few of the emotions they may feel—one at a time or simultaneously.

These feelings are a natural response to serious illness. Don’t try to help the child “get over” these feelings; simply enter into their feelings and validate them.

6. Help the Dying Child Live to the Fullest

Terminal illness presents human beings with an exceedingly difficult and contradictory challenge: you are dying, you know you are dying, yet it is your nature to want to live. Dying children often feel this tension, too. If the adults around them have been honest, they understand that they will soon die, but they still want to live and laugh and play as often as they can.

Help the dying child live happily. Do what is in your power to make them comfortable. Create special, memorable moments. Don’t completely abandon your normal routine (this may make the child feel out-of-control and unprotected) but do work to make each remaining day count. Above all, spend time with them. Make sure that the people who mean the most are around as often as possible.

Group of four children smiling at the camera

Peer relationships are very important to children, and the illness will likely create some social and physical barriers to these friendships. When possible, nurture the child’s friendships when possible. Arrange a special party. Make play dates with one or two best friends. Help two children write letters back and forth when personal contact isn’t possible.

7. Take Advantage of Resources for the Dying

Local hospices are well-staffed and trained to help both a dying child and their family. The hospice’s mission is to help the dying die with comfort, dignity, and love, and to help survivors cope both before and after the death. Other organizations, like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, help dying children find joy in their remaining lives.

8. Support Parents and Other Important Adults in the Child’s Life

A child’s terminal illness naturally impacts everyone who loves the child. Not only should you be supportive of the child, you should also be available to support and nurture other family members and close friends through the grief and stress of the situation. The adult’s response to the illness will influence the child’s response. So, in supporting adults, you are supporting the child.

Perhaps you can be a caring companion to the family and help in practical ways. Offer to provide food for the family, wash clothes, or clean the house. Listen when they need to talk. Sit with the ill child to give parents a break. Offer to babysit the other children in the family. While words may be inadequate, your supportive behavior will be remembered forever.

Two people holding hands in comfort

9. Don’t Forget Siblings

Don’t forget the impact a dying child’s illness is having on their siblings. Because so much time and attention are focused on the dying child, his brothers and sisters may feel emotionally abandoned. Go out of your way to ensure their needs are also being met.

10. Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. During this difficult time, you may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending religious services, or praying. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs.

A Final Word

All children, terminally ill or not, have the right to be nurtured, to be children, and to make choices that impact their lives. There is nothing more difficult for families than confronting the death of a child. As caring adults, we have a responsibility to maximize the quality of life for the child, the family, and friends. May these 10 insights help you lovingly care for each person affected by the death of a child.

*Based heavily on a brochure by Dr. Alan Wolfelt called Helping a Child Who is Dying. Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about helping children in grief. Published with permission.

Younger person holding elderly person's hands in a comforting way

6 Ways to Support a Dying Friend in Their Final Days

By For Caregivers & Families, Grief & Loss No Comments

If you’re reading this, you have a friend who is dying, and you’re probably dealing with a lot of feelings. Facing the death of someone you care about is extremely difficult for everyone involved, but hopefully, these words will guide you toward knowing how you can help and support your friend with loving actions during their final days.

Younger person holding elderly person's hands in a comforting way

When a Friend is Dying

First, it’s important to confront the difficult reality that someone you care deeply about is dying. It may take time to accept the fact of your friend’s impending death. In some cases, it may not be until after death has occurred that you fully and finally acknowledge the reality. This is normal.

If you just aren’t ready (or able) to accept your friend’s coming death just yet, that’s okay. Instead, try to come to grips with the reality of their medical condition, if only with your head. You will later come to accept it with your heart.

Now, let’s talk about six ways you can emotionally support your friend and make their final days precious and meaningful.

1. Give the Gift of Presence

Perhaps the greatest gift you can give your dying friend is the gift of your presence. Particularly if you live nearby, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your support by being there, literally, when your friend needs you most. Visit your friend at the hospital or at home—not just once, but throughout the remainder of their days. Rent a movie and bring popcorn. Play cards or board games. Sit together and watch the snow or rain fall. Your simple presence will say to your friend, “I am willing to walk this difficult road with you and face with you whatever comes.”

Remember to respect your friend’s need for alone time, though, and realize that their deteriorating physical condition may leave them with little energy. Give your friend time alone when they need it.

Two male friends sitting together, praying

2. Be a Good Listener

Your friend may want to openly discuss their illness and impending death, or they may avoid discussing it entirely. The key is to follow your friend’s lead. Keep in mind that your friend will experience this illness in their own unique way. No two journeys are the same.

Allow your friend to talk about their illness and their grief at their own pace. And while you can be a “safe harbor” for your friend to explain their thoughts and feelings, don’t force the situation if they resist. Give them space and time to think and feel what they need to think and feel.

If you listen well, you can help your friend cope during this difficult time. Both your physical presence and your desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words your friend is sharing with you.

3. Learn About Your Friend’s Illness

It’s said that “People can cope with what they know, but they cannot cope with what they don’t know.” You will be better equipped to help your friend if you take it upon yourself to learn about their illness. Consult medical reference books at your local library. Request information from educational associations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Heart Association. With your friend’s consent, you might also talk to their physician.

If you educate yourself about the illness and its probable course, you will be a more understanding listener and can prepare yourself for the reality of the illness’s later stages.

Two women sitting together, discussing a serious topic

4. Be Compassionate

As you spend time with your friend, give them permission to express their feelings about the illness without fear of criticism. After all, everyone needs time to vent or express what’s on the inside. But again, let your friend take the lead. Learn from your friend; don’t instruct or set expectations about how they should respond. Think of yourself as someone who “walks with” the dying person, not “behind” or “in front of” them.

Never say, “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. Comments like, “This is God’s will” or “Just be happy you have had a good life” are not constructive. Instead, these kinds of comments are often hurtful and may make your friend’s experience with terminal illness more difficult. If you feel the need to console your friend, simply remind them how loved they are.

5. Offer Practical Help

While your friend may have family around to help, there are many ways you can still assist with the activities of daily living. Preparing food, washing clothes, cleaning the house, watching the kids, or driving your friend to and from the hospital for treatment are just a few of the practical ways of showing you care. Make sure to coordinate with family members so that there’s no added stress from miscommunication.

Young woman washing dishses

6. Stay in Touch

If you are unable to visit your sick friend due to distance or other circumstances, write a note or make a call or send a gift or make a video. What should you say? Tell your friend how much they mean to you. Reminisce about some of the fun times you’ve shared. Promise you’ll write again soon—and then follow through on that promise. Avoid sending a generic greeting card unless you’ve personalized it with a heartfelt message.

Your friend is likely facing a lot of emotions as they journey toward death. Fear, shock, anger, sadness. No matter how they’re feeling, they need you, your love, and your friendship to make it through the coming days. Use these six actions to show your friend just how much you care and make memories that will be precious to you both.

*Based heavily on a brochure by Dr. Alan Wolfelt called Helping a Friend Who is Dying. Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about helping a friend in grief. Published with permission.

Young woman in white sweater looking out the window

10 Grief Myths You May Believe

By Grief & Loss No Comments

As you reflect on the loss of someone you love and their journey through hospice, it may be helpful to understand what to expect from the coming weeks and months. So often, we get our understanding of grief from other people, television, or even society, and sometimes, it’s not entirely accurate. To help you in your grief journey, let’s remove the cobwebs from your understanding of grief and talk about common grief myths.

Young woman sitting on windowsill looking outside

Myth #1: Grief is a burden.

It’s hard to argue with your emotions, but in many cases, they don’t tell you the full story. While grief may feel like a burden when you’re going through it, the emotions you’re feeling are actually healthy and a good sign.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor, author, and educator, puts it this way: “Love and grief are two sides of the same precious coin. One does not – and cannot – exist without the other. People sometimes say that grief is the price we pay for the joy of having loved. This also means that grief is not a universal experience. Grief is predicated on our capacity to give and receive love. Some people choose not to love, and so, never grieve. If we allow ourselves the grace that comes with love, however, we must allow ourselves the grace that is required to mourn.”

So, grief is not a burden. It’s the natural result of having loved deeply and wholly – something we all seek and need to live full lives.

Woman standing outside in fall, contemplating and thinking

Myth #2: Grief goes away. / Time heals all wounds.

As nice as it would be to say that time will heal your wounds and that your grief will one day go away, it’s simply not true. But take heart! At the beginning of the grief journey, your grief feelings are front and center. However, as you do the work of grief and incorporate the loss into the story of your life, your feelings of grief will decrease in intensity.

Grieving isn’t about “getting over” the loss; it’s about finding a way to move forward. There will be moments, even years down the road, when tears will come to your eyes, and that’s okay. Your feelings of love for that person will never go away, so there will always be a part of you that misses them and grieves their absence.

Older man sitting with hands under chin

Myth #3: Grief and mourning are the same thing.

Though both grief and mourning are associated with the death of a loved one, there’s a difference between them. Grief refers to your internal thoughts and feelings. Mourning, on the other hand, is a shared, social response to loss. In other words, we mourn by taking our internal grief and turning it into actions.

The funeral is an excellent example. At a funeral service, you come together with other mourners to offer support, share stories, mark the significance of a life, and find personalized ways to honor your loved one’s memory. As human beings, when we don’t find ways to outwardly express (mourn) what we feel on the inside (grief), complications can occur, often resulting in a longer period of intense grief. Finding a way to express what you feel is an important and necessary part of grieving well.

Holding hands in a comforting way

Myth #4: There’s a set time frame for grief.

Sometimes, you may feel like well-meaning friends or family members are rushing your grieving process. Don’t listen to them. In truth, there’s no set time frame for grief. It takes the time it takes. Ultimately, the journey toward reconciliation – learning how to move forward – often depends on the type of loss and the depth of the relationship.

As long as you are actively doing the work of grief – engaging with your emotions, talking through your loss, and finding ways to honor your loved one’s memory – you will find your way to reconciliation.

Woman wrapped in cozy blanket while holding mug and looking at photo album

Myth #5: Grief is the same, regardless of the loss you experience.

In some ways, it’s easier to relate to someone who has gone through a similar loss, but to say that the grief is the same is untrue. Even if two women have each lost a husband, they are individual people with unique personalities and ways of coping. While both women lost a spouse, they will deal with the loss differently based on their unique personalities, their background, their support group, and even the type of relationship they shared with their spouse. When you take all of these factors into account, there is no way that the experience can be the same from person to person even if the type of loss falls into the same category.

People may experience similar emotions – sadness, anger, relief, regret, guilt – but even the expression of these emotions varies from person to person. Every journey is individualized and should be handled with kindness and compassion.

Husband comforting wife as they sit at table, hand on arm

Myth #6: Moving forward with your life means forgetting your loss.

While the ultimate goal of the grief journey is to find a way to move forward, this doesn’t mean you will forget about the person you love. They are forever a part of you, and you were shaped in some way by your relationship with them. Moving forward is about finding continued meaning and purpose in life following your loss.

Rest assured – learning to live again won’t make you forget your loved one. In fact, living through loss gives you an even greater appreciation for the time you shared and a desire to cherish the time you have left with living loved ones.

Young man outside, thinking and processing

Myth #7: There are five stages of grief.

More than likely, you’ve heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This theory puts a nice tidy ribbon on a fairly complex human experience, but unfortunately, it’s often taken wildly out of context.

Kubler-Ross’s research was focused on the grief stages that patients go through following a terminal diagnosis. So, to a degree, you and your loved one in hospice care may have gone through the five stages of grief as you came to grips with a terminal diagnosis. However, the five stages don’t apply to the grief you will feel after your loved one has died.

Grief isn’t quite so simple. Your emotions may be all over the place and come in no particular order. While it would be nice to have a formula for grief, it simply doesn’t exist. You feel what you feel when you feel it, and all you can do is work through it when it comes.

Older man and woman sitting at table grieving, man's head on woman's shoulder

Myth #8: There’s a right way to grieve.

We’ve already established that every grief journey is different because every person and relationship is different. The same principle holds true for how you express your grief. For some, crying comes very naturally as a way to release their emotions. For others, it’s writing, walking, running, painting, or using a punching bag. There’s no “right” way to respond to loss. If you need to cry, cry. If you never cry, that’s okay, too. Simply find what helps you release the emotions you feel inside – whatever that looks like.

Also, though it may be a temptation, don’t try to “be strong” for those around you. There may be moments when you need to keep your emotions in check, but as soon as you can, find a safe place to release what you’re feeling and embrace it. Dr. Wolfelt tells us that, “You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it if you are to reconcile yourself to it.” So, face what you feel and grieve in the way that is most beneficial for you.

Young woman in white sweater looking out the window

Myth #9: It’s wrong to feel certain emotions after a loss.

Perhaps it’s an innate response, but there are certain emotions that you may feel an aversion to following a loss. Mainly, anger, guilt, regret, or relief. However, if you’ve felt these emotions, rest assured that you’re not alone, and these are completely normal reactions to loss.

You may feel angry that your loved one didn’t take better care of themselves. You may feel guilty about the final words you spoke to them. Regret may fill you because you didn’t call or visit more often. You may feel relieved because their illness is finally over. These are all normal reactions to the loss of a loved one. Don’t beat yourself up over what you feel. Take time to work through it and give yourself some grace for the journey.

Female friends hug after a loss

Myth #10: Grief is reserved for the passing of a loved one.

While we most often associate grief with the death of a loved one, this is not always the case. You can feel grief about a loved one going into hospice, a terminal diagnosis, the loss of a life cut short, or the loss of what might have been. Each one of these situations – and so many more – can bring out feelings of grief and loss. And just as with the loss of a person, you must work through your emotions and find a way to move forward with meaning and purpose.