COVID has put a great deal of strain on families dealing with end-of-life issues. Lockdowns forced many healthcare facilities to close their doors, preventing people from staying in touch with sick relatives. Worse, in many of these cases, they were not even able to say goodbye. Over the past year, our chaplain has seen an alarming rise in stress, fear, anxiety, depression, and guilt. As a result, supporting families who cannot see their loved one has become an urgent challenge. But in order to address it, families need the help of their friends, medical providers, and community.
Create Positive Channels of Communication
The most important way of supporting families is to make sure everyone stays connected. Caregivers, nurses, RN case managers, anyone who interacts with your loved one needs to be a positive channel of communication. Once you learn something, pass it along to anyone you can think of – sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, church members, or family friends. Keeping everyone informed will help them feel close to the people they love, even if they cannot see them in person.
Connect Face-to-Face Whenever Possible
Skype, Facetime, and Zoom have given us the ability to talk face-to-face anytime, anywhere. Use it. Call once a day or once a week, as often as you can. If your loved one does not have their phone or iPad nearby, then ask the RN case manager to bring it in for you. Case managers check on their patients at least once a day, so ask to make your call part of their routine.
Connecting face-to-face, even for only ten minutes, is the best way to stay aware of your loved one’s condition. A patient’s appearance can decline rapidly near the end of life. Seeing the change all at once can be deeply upsetting but staying in touch makes it easier to cope.
Supporting Families by Reaching Out & Listening
There is a tendency, when supporting families, to offer advice. Resist it. When a family loses one of its members, they will be dealing with a myriad of emotions. In this scenario, the best thing you can do is let them talk. Working through questions, fears, anxieties, and concerns is an important part of the grieving process. Therefore, check in as often as you can. See how they are doing day to day. Building up a close relationship will make it easier to help them.
Encourage Them to Remember the Good Times
Our chaplain once worked with a client who was having a difficult time coming to terms with the death of her mother. She was experiencing a lot of guilt over their unresolved issues and obsessing over the terrible things in their relationship. So, the chaplain suggested the family take some time to sit down and talk about the good things her mother had shared with her.
For example, the woman and her mother used to cross-stitch. The patterns they created were so intricate, they had them framed and hung up on the wall. Then a few family members brought out some of the old pieces they had made. Until now, the woman had been unable to move on. However, seeing the old patterns reminded her of her mother’s love, which helped put the past behind her.
Everyone has stress and strain in their relationships. Parents and children are no different. A lot of things happen to them over the course of a lifetime, and not all of them will be good. But thinking back over the problems they had will only make it harder to move on. Encourage them to focus on positive memories instead.
Share Your Experience When Supporting Families
Later, our chaplain was working with a patient who had no living family members. However, she had made a close friend in Bible study. When the patient became ill, the chaplain suggested the two of them go back and reminisce about what they had read together. Sharing their memories deepened their bond and helped prepare them for the patient’s death.
Remembering helps people acknowledge loss and find meaning. So, don’t be afraid to open up and share. It helps paint a picture of the loved one’s life and is a great way of supporting families as they grieve.
Be a Practical Help
Everyone grieves differently. There is no right way or wrong way, just as there is no right way or wrong way of supporting them. If you do not know what to do, offer practical help. Come over and cook a meal, mow the lawn, or do laundry. It is a tangible way to show you care.
Remind Them That It Is Not Your Fault
Everyone understands how important it is to keep people safe during the pandemic. No one wants to infect a love one, but this does not make it easy to stay away. Many people feel guilty when they cannot be by the side of a loved one. Things did not happen the way they expected, and often they blame themselves for not being there when they died.
If you are searching for a way of supporting families in this situation, start by acknowledging that guilt is a normal part of the grieving process. Then search for positive thoughts to balance out the bad. For instance, remind them of all the ways they tried to stay in touch. Make space for their feelings as well. It can be hard, but they need to talk through their emotions in order to forgive themselves.
Remember the Hospice Team is There to Help
Hospice exists not only to comfort patients, but their family as well. Besides nurses and case managers, hospice teams include chaplains trained to guide families through mourning. If you need help supporting families through their loss, hospice chaplains are a great resource. Their knowledge will help create a path forward to a place of comfort.
Jason Graham has been a hospice chaplain with Parentis Health since 2016. He has served churches throughout Orange County as a teaching pastor, outreach pastor, and senior pastor. He counsels hospice patients and their families, offering spiritual comfort and guidance. During the end-of-life process, he works closely with patients, encouraging them to explore their spiritual and emotional needs, as well as providing comfort to their families.