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Grieving and Going Back to Work

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
LISA CLARK: Welcome, and thank you for joining us for this webcast. I'm Lisa Clark.

As adults, we all comprehend the fact that someday our parents will die. But the reality of that event has much more emotional impact than we can often foresee. Even when our parents are advanced in age or have dealt with a long illness, it is hard to be prepared for the ramifications of such a loss, but they can be profound. For the next few minutes we'll take a look at the phenomenon of the adult orphan, and what the loss of your parent means, even when you are grown.

Joining us for this discussion is Benyamin Cirlin. Welcome. He is a clinical social worker and the executive director for the Center for Loss and Renewal in New York City. He's also the coordinator of bereavement services at Jacob Perlo Hospice of the Beth Israel Medical Center. Thanks for being here.

Also joining us is Patty Donovan-Duff. She is a registered nurse, and she is the director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester. Patty, you've also done a lot of hospice work.

Patty, one of the hardest things you might have to deal with is a lack of acknowledgment about how big a loss this is. But people who are around you -- coworkers, friends -- might say, "Wow! 80 years old. What a great life." Or, "Gee, you must be so relieved. They were suffering so much." How hard is that for the person who has suffered the loss to hear and to deal with?

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: It's very difficult. I think in our society these days, also, people get three days off after a loss of a parent. They are expected to return to work pretty quickly afterwards. There's probably a period of time where there is that condolence period, but very quickly they are expected to be performing as usual with their concentration being right on and being the same person as they were before. That doesn't happen. You change.

LISA CLARK: And having to deflect the kind of inane comments that people often make, how do you equip people to deal with hearing the sorts of things that aren't helpful?

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: Sometimes you have to help them rehearse those responses. We do that with children, as well. What would you say, because this comes up in groups a lot. What's a good answer? Really, what people need during that time is to remember, not to hear, "It's going to be okay and you're going to move on." But it may be an opportunity to remember the person who died, to talk about the person who died to somebody. That remembering is a very important piece.

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: There's something very important here, and that is most people who make those inane comments are not malicious. They are unschooled. Most people believe that when someone is grieving, you want to make them feel better. The truth of the matter is, you can't make a grieving person feel immediately better. What a grieving person needs in many, many instances is simply a chance to be heard.

LISA CLARK: Exactly. Acknowledgment that this was a loss, and this is an important loss.

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: So it's much more important to teach people to say, "What's it like?" rather than, "You'll be okay."

LISA CLARK: Absolutely. Let's talk a little bit about intense grief. I can't imagine going back to work after three days under the best of circumstance, but there are some people who experience really dramatic, life-altering setbacks with this kind of grief. They feel overwhelmed by it. How often does that happen, and when it does, how should people address it?

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: I usually encourage them to talk to their supervisors at work, the people they work with to educate them a little bit about what is going on with them. Again, I don't think people mean to be uncaring, but they just don't know. You don't know until you go through it, almost, what it really is like, and sometimes you need to say to your employer, "Sometimes I'm going to need to take a walk around the block. Sometimes I'm going to need a little break in the middle of the day." That's just normal, and reassure them that this is the normal grieving process and that it's not going to last forever. That's what we do with the people that we work with. We reassure them that this isn't going to last forever.

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: One of the confusing things about normal grief, particularly in the early months, is that intense feelings can be common and are normal. They are very confusing, because you could be sitting down at work and being productive, and then all of a sudden a wave of sadness comes upon you, and almost for no reason you'd break down. You need to educate people that that is normal.

LISA CLARK: It's helpful to hear you use the word "wave," because it is a cyclical process, as we've mentioned. You don't just start at point A and get to point B and everything's great. It's a lot of seesawing for your emotions.

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: It's very frightening sometimes for people, because they've never felt this intense emotion before, and I've had many people come in and say, "I think I'm going crazy." I think they really do feel until they get in there that there is something very, very wrong with them, and when they hear that all of what they're feeling, thinking, how they're acting is normal, there's such a relief. Their shoulders just go down and they go, "Oh." Unfortunately, that's where I think we really need more education. We really need to share with each other more what it's like to grieve.

LISA CLARK: I can't thank both of you enough. This has been a very illuminating conversation. As I've noted, it's a process that we will all have to go through at some point in our lives. I appreciate you being here, Benyamin and Patty. Thank you very much. Thank all of you for tuning in. I'm Lisa Clark.

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