We have already established that grief is sneaky.
You can’t just ignore grief, hide from it, or punch it in the face. That would be completely counterproductive. Why? Because grief can be your friend if you just give it a chance.
Grief wants you to remember that you lost something really important. Like your BFF, grief will not let you simply pretend that nothing happened. Grief is going to call you out on your shit. The trouble is, grief doesn’t speak English or Spanish or any other human language. Grief speaks in very intense emotion and, like all BFFs, grief really likes to know you are listening.
The best way to acknowledge grief is through ritual.
The word ritual might conjure up images of robes, candles, and incense (this covers a few different religions/spiritual paths), but ritual can be much less daunting. You do not need a robe. Scrubs will suffice. You do not need a candle or incense. I’m guessing those are not allowed in your workplace. If your spouse wasn’t worried about you already, think how they would react if you lit up some frankincense or patchouli! Of course, if that’s your thing, cool. Light it up! But first, let’s get back to the “why” of ritual before we dive into the “what.”
Every culture has rituals for acknowledging death.
When a fellow human dies, we come together in community and share in our grief. We take time to organize and engage in ceremony: we have funerals, memorials, and celebrations of life; we spread ashes, say prayers, sit shiva, tell stories; we cry, laugh, consider our own mortality; we remember. Most importantly, we acknowledge that the world has changed when we lose someone we love.
When we lose someone or something close to our own hearts, grief comes along and makes sure we feel it deeply. While we are in the middle of a great big bear hug of grief, the world continues on as if nothing happened. This is true whether the loss is death or something less fatal. Ritual closes the gap between emotional upheaval and the fact that life will go on. You have to make the time and effort to plan the funeral, say the prayer, spread the ashes. That means you also have to look grief in the eye and muster every bit of energy you have left to make it through that ritual.
In your healthcare role, you are witnessing and experiencing losses daily.
These losses may be really big or really little, but they are happening. This blog post on grief has a list of examples specific to healthcare. Over time, the little things add up. If you’re not listening to the grief that comes with the losses, it can sneak up on you and take you down (e.g., exhaustion, weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and the list goes on). You need to spend quality time with that grief.
The best way to spend time with grief (you guessed it) is through ritual.
There is something powerful about taking the time to honor the life of another human being. One study found that hospice workers who engaged in personally-meaningful rituals after the death of a patient were less likely to burn out. I’m sure this practice would be helpful for all healthcare professionals, not just those who are working in hospice.
Nerd Alert! Here’s the scholarly reference:
Montross-Thomas, L.P., Scheiber, C., Meier, E.A., & Irwin, S.A. (2016). Personally meaningful rituals: A way to increase compassion and decrease burnout among hospice staff and volunteers. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 19(10), 1043-1050.
I can read your thoughts right now: you’re worried it will take too much time to acknowledge everything that happens in your day. But don’t worry! You can infuse ritual into the way you practice your profession and it does not have to be complicated or time consuming. You can take simple steps to hold hands with grief before it wrestles you down.
There are many ways to engage in ritual, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Simply acknowledge that a loss has occurred. On your next bathroom break, say a little prayer for the patient who was just diagnosed with cancer. Send some positive, loving thoughts to the patient who is addicted to opioids. Admit that it hurt your feelings when that aggressive patient called you a mean name.
Start a notebook to memorialize all the losses. Write a few positive words about your patient. You don’t need to put their name on it. You might say something like “you got this. You may not have your leg anymore, but your spirit can still run with the wind.” For that grumpy old man, you might write, “Thank you for helping me practice patience. I’d be grumpy too if I had to have a plastic tube up my nose.” The added benefit of the journal method is that you have a record of all the things you’ve been through. You can see just how much work you’re doing, how much healing you offer the world. Now it’s getting sappy in here. But really…you help A LOT of people. Next time you wonder why you’re exhausted, flip through your journal and give yourself some credit. (Note: For some people this could result in overwhelm. For crying out loud, give yourself permission to do what’s best for you. What do I know?)
This is for the OCD creative types out there: fold a paper crane for each loss. After the first few, you’ll get good at it and it will only take a minute. Like the journal method, this shows you exactly how much crazy shit you’ve endured. Plus it’s pretty.
Pick a song to play whenever you need to acknowledge a loss. Music plays a big role in our grief rituals and it can also help you here. Put on your headphones for a few minutes or play it in your car on the way home. That three and a half minutes will be the time you allow yourself to acknowledge that person, the beauty, the pain, and the suffering. Then you can let it go. Don’t hold it in your body. Even better: dance it out.
These are just some ideas I made up. I’m pretty good at making stuff up, but don’t feel like you have to stick to this list. I’m sure you’ve got some interesting ideas in your own head. Maybe you can even infuse creativity into this. Whatever you do, don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Weekly or monthly rituals are better than non-existent rituals. Grab your square paper and start folding.
If you think of a new ritual, please share it with us!
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