I think the first thing that we must do to help people who have been bereaved is to tell them to be “kind to themselves.” Point out to them that they have come through a very emotional period, possibly a very long one, and that the first thing they must do is get themselves strong.
As a long-term caregiver, you have likely been on both sides of bereavement: you may have lost a loved one yourself, or witnessed the effects of bereavement among residents at your facility. Many residents may have lost a spouse, adult child and a multitude of friends during their time with you.
Taking care of oneself doesn’t just include becoming emotionally or mentally healthy, but physically fit. Make sure someone in bereavement is eating properly, because it is easy to forget to do this in the middle of grief. Sensible meals, sitting down and not rushing may sound old-fashioned, but I think it gives the whole of one’s metabolism a chance to recover. If I was on my own, I found it useful to read something, to stop me eating too quickly. This can be a particular issue for professional caregivers suffering from a loss, as they rush from place to place to try to ignore their feelings.
Another extremely important thing is sleep. Bereaved people, especially ones who have taken care of an ill family member, may have had months, even years of broken nights and this can so easily become a habit. So many people are frightened of taking sleeping pills, but they can be very helpful when prescribed and monitored by a physician. Surely it is far more beneficial to get into a good pattern of sleep during the first weeks of bereavement than spending agonizing hours in the night? I am sure that we have all suffered the pain of going over and over things which seem insuperable in the dark hours; nearly always, especially if one has had a good night’s rest, one can face up to these difficulties in the morning.
At least one can seek advice when everyone else is awake. And this is my third point: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Help during bereavement can come from friends, coworkers, family members or experts. They each have a role to play, and often people want to be included. There are so many little practical things that people can help with, such as getting the death certificate signed; helping to plan the funeral service; informing the bank and other entities of someone’s death, and other business matters. There are small household things too like taking food when you know there are people there (I well remember someone I didn’t know very well bringing round a huge delicious fruit cake to me after my husband died, which was a Godsend. People always seem to visit to have some tea and coffee, and the fruit cake was extremely welcoming). There are other things like letting relatives and close friends know, and maybe offering to give them a bed before or after the funeral; even walking the dog or doing some shopping, or just being there to answer the telephone which can be terribly stressful for the nearest and dearest to have to deal with. You can think of what is appropriate in the circumstances, which of course are different for everyone. When a family member of a resident says they feel helpless over an impending or recent loss, give them concrete ideas of ways to help the bereaved.
The fourth thing I would mention is guilt…. ‘If only I had done this’ or ‘not done that’. You must let go, and the sooner you face up to the loss and can start to grieve, the better it will be. No one can do this for you, but they can help by coming alongside you if you will let them.
Never be afraid of tears: they are wonderfully therapeutic. Everyone grieves on his or her own time frame, but don’t wallow in self-pity. The best medicine is laughter if you can manage it from time to time: it is not belittling one’s sorrow and grief, and it does help others to help you if you can put on a cheerful face however much one is breaking inside.
My final word has to be in French as we have no equivalent: Courage mon brave.
Penelope Bourdillon’s latest publication Hope in the Valley is intended to help and encourage people through their journey of bereavement after the loss of a loved one. It is available through Amazon.com and proceeds benefit the Beulah Church, Eglwys Oen Duw (The Church of the Lamb of God).