A couple of weeks ago I attended the ADEC (Association for Death Educators and Counselors) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Amongst this group of professionals it is well known that we live in a death-denying society. Statistics are showing that more and more people are choosing cremations and more are choosing to have no services at all.
Yet over the past few years, as my colleagues in the healthcare industry have gotten more comfortable with me working in the funeral service industry, I have received several phone calls from such colleagues asking why they feel like they are not allowed to grieve in their work environments. They have said things like:
- “I know I work in a nursing home and should be used to death, but I feel like my co-workers look sideways at me when I get upset over the death of a resident.”
- “Just because I work in a hospital doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad when one of my patients dies.”
- “My aunt died last year and a co-worker actually said to me ‘You should be used to stuff like that’. I couldn’t believe she was so insensitive.”
- “Why do I feel like everyone is avoiding me knowing that my son died? It’s like they’re afraid I’ll start crying in front of them.”
- “When I went back to work after the funeral there was this weird air in the office. It was like my co-workers were just waiting for me to lose it so they could …what? Tell me to stop?”
It is well known that the longer a person works in the healthcare industry the more there becomes a familiarity with death and dying and the less we react to such losses. However, that does not mean we are not affected by those losses at all. We still have certain patients/residents/clients that tear at our heartstrings when they die. There certainly would be something wrong (or we’ve just been in the business too long) if we get to a point where we feel nothing. So why are some healthcare professionals so critical or judgmental about how we grieve in the work environment? It all has to do with opinions.
Grief Affects Everyone Differently
We all know that every person grieves differently and in their own way. We also know that human beings are highly opinionated individuals, and we have our own images and preconceived ideas about how things should be based on how we believe we would be in the given situation. Therefore, when people see someone behaving in a way that they believe they would NOT, they tend to judge that person based on their own ideas of how they should behave. That is just human nature.
There are also those opinions about how a person should grieve based on where they work and the knowledge they have about death and dying. Although people who work in environments that touch death (hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, etc.) may reach a point where they understand that death is a part of life, it does not mean we are cold to death. It merely means that there is a deeper understanding of body and disease processes and that death is the result of the body not able to continue to live.
Myth: “People who work in health-related fields become used to death and, therefore, are not affected by it.”
Just to be clear, there are wonderful caring individuals who work in the healthcare community who have learned not to be judgmental and are extremely compassionate and comforting to patients and their families. These are also people that understand that it is okay to be emotionally affected by the death of patients. When you care for people in these environments it is common to feel that they are like your second family. I even witnessed a nurse become saddened by the death of a resident because it meant she would no longer be seeing his family.
How to Show Support
Is your office a grief-denying environment? Have you seen your co-workers judging others inappropriately? According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, here are some tips for supporting a co-worker who is grieving and working towards becoming a grief-friendly environment:
- Be present – sometimes just letting a colleague know you are there for them can do more than any words said. Listen with an open mind and without judgement.
- Be patient – your co-worker may have a long grief journey ahead of them. Allow your coworker time to get back into their routine. Also, allow yourself time to spend with your co-worker at more convenient times (lunch time, break, or after work).
- Reach out with a compassionate heart – acknowledge your coworker’s loss and offer practical support:
- Bring them lunch
- Offer to attend a support group with them
- Offer to accompany them to important meetings
- Go on a walk with them
- Avoid clichés and useless words – although you may mean well, clichés such as “Time heals all wounds” or “Think of all you have to be thankful for” can be more painful than helpful.
As I have often tried to teach my children – in any situation, think about how you would want to be treated in the same circumstances and let that be your guide on how you should treat others.
You can learn more about helpful resources on our website www.schoedinger.com by clicking the “Grief Support” link.