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Published on May 27, 2020

Finding Peace with the Loss of a Loved One

sad lady looking out window

If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know how hard it can feel to move on and continue on with your own life. How do you find peace with the loss of a loved one?

We have some advice from two local experts in the field – Pat LeBaron is a Hospice Chaplain and Guy Freeman is a Hospice Social with EvergreenHealth.

People deal with grief differently. Is there a right way, a wrong way? What would you like to tell us about the ways that we deal with grief?

Pat LeBaron, hospice chaplain: I think people are under the impression that there is a correct and incorrect way to grieve. But grief is as individual as we are. Everyone grieves differently. Everyone has different coping skills.

Grief is hard enough without you feeling like you have to measure up in some way. And it will take as long as it takes, and everybody is different in how they go through it.

Guy Freeman, hospice social worker: I like to remind folks, friends, that grieving is a normal and natural reaction to a loss that we have in our lives. And too often, when we experience grief, it can get pathologized by ourselves thinking like what’s wrong with me, why is this taking so long, why is it getting worse not better.

I agree with what Pat said -- it’s very individual, it’s very much about embracing as hard as that may sound, embracing one’s grief and allowing time to move through it.

Guy, you’re a Hospice Social Worker, so you are working with end of life care. Can you prepare for the loss of a loved one and if so, how do you go about doing that?

Guy: It is both a yes and a no. Yes, there are things that you can do to prepare. I always encourage families or caregivers to identify and lean into their sources of support. And if they have gotten socially isolated over the years by caring for a loved one; now would be a good time to, as best you can, reconnect with some of those social supports whether it’s a church, friends or a faith community so that you are not completely alone when you do experience the actual loss.

Other ways to prepare is like listening to this type of podcast quite honestly and getting familiar with the grieving process. As Pat alluded, there is a lot of misconceptions about what grief is and isn’t and what’s normal or what’s dysfunctional kind of grief or complicated grief. As best you can, educate yourself about what is this going to be like and so when it happens, you are not kind of fighting yourself about what is perhaps very healthy grieving reaction.

On the "no" side, we’ve had patients that have been on a long slow decline for year, sometimes described as the long goodbye, and family members will say well I know I’m going to be ready when they pass away. Sometimes they are, but sometimes I’ll hear back from them and they say "I had no idea. I thought I would be ready for this. But even though I knew it was coming, it’s still different now that they are gone."

So, again, just allowing yourself the graciousness of each experience being different.

Pat: I think people may not realize the finality of death when it finally happens. And it’s true, we do have patients who have long-term illnesses and the spouse or the kids or the family in a way, they are already grieving. We call that anticipatory grief but when they actually die; it’s so final that sometimes they are a little unprepared for the shock of that.

Even if the person had been not verbal, you could still go sit with them, hold their hand, talk to them. They were still there.

But when they die, they are truly gone; there is kind of a shock that can happen with that even though they’ve been expecting it for a long time.

Sometimes we encourage families we are working with; they may not know what to say to their loved one who is approaching the end of life. And so sometimes we help them by suggesting that they say what they need to say while that person is still with them.

That can include I love you, thank you, forgive me, I forgive you; sometimes, they have already said those things, or they’ve said them in their own way. Sometimes with family tensions it’s hard to say those things. They are not maybe used to it.

Those are sort of four core things that I find as chaplain,and people can struggle with those things sometimes. And it’s a relief to have said those things to people that mean so much to us in our lives.

So, the golden rule is try to say what you need to say and that’s for your benefit as well as the person who is dying.

When we’re speaking with our loved one near the end; do you advise families to say goodbye? Do you recommend that? Because some people don’t like that idea; they think it makes the person who is dying more afraid or more fearful of this. What do you think of that?

Guy: Speaking to the genuineness of the situation, depending on individuals’ faith traditions, they may not say goodbye, they may say I will see you on the other side or I will see you soon and so I don’t know if that’s giving comfort to their loved one or to themselves or both. But I think it is important to say goodbye knowing that it speaks to the finality of death.

We’ve all heard about the stages of grief. What are those stages? Is there a duration for each? Is this an actual thing?

Pat: We’ve all inherited that Elizabeth Kubler Ross five stage thing which is denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I would say modern grief support and therapy has more to do with acknowledging that it’s not linear stages that you are going through.

Often you are hitting all those things at the same time or maybe one at a time. One is the more dominant emotion that you are sort of feeling.

Grief is messy. I think that surprises people. They want it to be linear because it hurts. It’s so painful. We want to have a formula to get through it.

I lead a lot of grief support groups and the number one question that gets asked is when is this going to stop hurting so badly? When am I going to get through this? And you have to just say it will take as long as it takes.

It’s a process. It’s a healing, just like if you had a broken leg, it would take a while for that leg to heal. And you would have to wear a cast and there would be painful parts to the healing.

With our emotional health, it’s the same thing. When we suffer a loss of a loved one, it takes time to heal.

You might think there’s something wrong if you already passed that stage of anger and now months later, you're angry all over again. And you may feel as if you’ve slid all the way back to the beginning.

And what I often say to my support groups is no, it’s a sign of healing even if you feel like you are revisiting something that you did before. There are triggers that trigger us. Sometimes anniversaries do that or special days. And then we feel like we’re feeling a lot of that raw pain of early grief. But it’s just a normal part of the process.

You want it to be orderly. But it’s not. It’s kind of a mess.

Guy: The misconception of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was that her observations were with patients that were given a terminal illness. So, it was the stages that a person is going through as they come to terms with their terminal illness. It’s much different grieving when you have lost someone.

So, it’s a little bit of apples and oranges in terms of grieving process and that was 50 years ago. So, there has been a lot of research and better understanding of the grieving process and one theory is around the tasks of grieving and kind of coming to terms with your loss. Adjusting to the world without your loved one and then finding a way of having kind of an enduring connection with them in the reality that they are physically no longer present and then but yet maintaining and then starting to grow new emotional sustaining relationships.
So, that’s kind of more of the contemporary idea about loss and grief.

In your experience, do you have a best way to come to terms once you have lost a loved one? Is there any differences? Of course with kids, we have to help them get through that. But give us your best advice for coming to terms whether you think that support groups or local groups or books. How would you like us to come to those terms?

Guy: I think it is going back to accepting that everybody grieves differently. There’s no right way to do it. It’s hard work and it is work.

Using Pat’s analogy of mending a broken bone; you can kind of let it run its course and eventually it will heal, or you can get physical therapy and help to move through the process faster.

Grief work is about is being intentional about working through your grief. And everybody is going to be different. That may mean for one person it’s working in their woodshop of doing artistic work or others it may mean – who are more emotive in how – and need to talk about their feelings and process through speaking and talking. It could be talking to a therapist, a counselor, a group. It's discovering what works for you.

EvergreenHealth has a bereavement department that offers bereavement support services. Sometimes just having a consultation with a bereavement coordinator and saying hey, this is what’s been going on for me. Is this normal? And having someone who is a professional kind of normalize and then develop a physical therapy plan. How are you going to move forward and work and be intentional about moving through your grief.

Pat: Finding a support group or a counselor is extremely helpful. Whether it’s through a hospice or a local faith community. A lot of times there are groups. Books can be a form of bibliotherapy where you might read a memoir or a book about a specific kind of grief that relates to you. And that can be very helpful.

I think the benefit of a support group or a counselor or even reading a book is that it validates what you are going through. And in the loneliness of grief, where you feel like maybe you are the only one in the world that’s feeling this; that’s really beneficial and important that you are validated with what you are going through.

What advice would you give someone today who is coping with loss?
Guy: Don’t do it alone. Seek out someone who can, if nothing else, just be present with you.

Try to educate yourself about the grieving process. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of kind of misinformation about what it’s supposed to be and what it’s supposed to look like. Grief is not depression. Although it gets oftentimes misconstrued as being I’m depressed when in fact, someone is legitimately grieving.

Be gentle on yourself. It’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s hard work and it won’t resolve overnight. Giving yourself the time.

What would you like people to take away from this about the grief counseling available at EvergreenHealth and how best to grieve a loved one and know that life does go on and that that’s how they would want it?

Just remember that grief is a process. It’s a healing process even though it’s so painful it’s hard to believe at first. It will take as long as it takes.

Go really easy on yourself. Focus on a lot of good self-care.

Find others who are supportive whether that’s in a group or just supportive friends.

Feel your feelings. Don’t use substance abuse to numb the pain.

Try to feel the feelings and ask for what you need. That’s often hard to do. But people really want to help but they don’t know how so ask for what you need and whether it’s a support group at EvergreenHealth or individual grief counseling.There are resources out there in the community and you just need to find them and use them. And I think they’ll really help someone go through this process.

And actually feel hope.

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