Yolo Hospice bereavement staff particularly, but also the nurses, social workers and spiritual care counselors, are considered experts on coping with grief because of their training and through their personal experience in hospice.
Every year, Yolo Hospice cares for about 540 patients with life-limiting illness. The Yolo Hospice staff grows close to, works with and cares for nearly that many patients who die every year. What is not always acknowledged is that the Yolo Hospice staff grieves the loss of their patients, too. They support each other with the same recommendations for coping with grief that they offer to patients’ loved ones and those in the community who are bereaved.
Yolo Hospice staff members support each other with hugs, conversation, therapeutic humor and listening. Listening is possibly the most important because at the core, what they recommend and practice themselves is the expression of grief, which can take many forms.
The Yolo Hospice chaplains hold a weekly meeting to celebrate the lives of and remember every patient who has died that week.
“Most of the patient care staff attends these memorials,” said Penny Adams, chaplain. “We light a candle for each patient. The time and ritual help the staff reflect on their grief instead of bottling it up. They can light candles for friends and relatives if they wish.”
Every November the staff holds a memorial for the loved ones of patients who have died during the course of the year. At the annual memorial, patients and the loved ones of those in the community who have participated in bereavement groups are remembered.
Volunteers are considered part of the staff. They are welcome, even integral, at these events. In addition, the volunteers have two opportunities to get together to learn and support each other every month.
“At our meetings, volunteers can light a candle for patients or loved ones who have died that month. I also suggest that they may want to develop a personal ritual as a part of their grief process,” said Anne-Marie Flynn, volunteer services manager. “One of our volunteers recently dedicated a night out dancing to one of her patients and then wrote to tell me: ‘It was the first time I ever danced for someone else … when I carried them in my mind, they were heavy, but when I carried them in my heart, they were weightless. And when I stopped dancing, I said my goodbyes and let them go.’
“This ritual worked for this volunteer and is a great example of the ways ritual can be both unique and personal, or simple and universal like lighting a candle.”
For 20 years, Margie Dodson, Hospice R.N., has been writing out her grief. Every year, she takes a short vacation to the beach and spends it writing about her patients. She needed quiet time, and privacy to grieve and honor each patient. Last year, she put her collection of remembrances into a book called “The Last Visit, Reflections of a Hospice Nurse.”
Yolo Hospice is home to the Barbara Frankel Memorial Library. The library holds more than 700 titles to help grieving adults and children, including Dodson’s book. The library’s books, periodicals, support pamphlets, CDs and DVDs provide support, guidance and comfort to staff and the public.
In addition, many of the staff at Yolo Hospice regularly meet with outside counselors. The staff considers it responsible, professional self-caring to make sure they are dealing as well as possible with their own grief.
When asked why they continue to work and serve where they must cope with their own grief, the answers seem to all be much like these two responses:
In the first line of her book Dodson says, “As a hospice nurse, I have been honored to share in the living, dying and death of the most extraordinary ordinary people.”
Janet Mueller, Yolo Hospice chaplain said, “It is a blessing to do this work and we are given what we need to do it. After nine years, I know I am exactly where I’m meant to be.
“What I would tell anyone who is grieving is that it takes time,” Mueller said. “It will not always feel this way. You are not crazy. There are people who understand and who are waiting to help you.”
If want assistance through learning or expression of grief, please call 800-491-7711, 530-601-5756 or visit the website at www.yolohospice.org to get more information on the resources available.
— Mary Odbert is Yolo Hospice’s public relations representative. Her column is published monthly.