By SARA ARTHURS
Death is a part of life, and everyone, at some point, will lose a loved one. There’s no way to take that pain away, but learning to get support and take care of yourself may help. Bridge Hospice offers support groups and education for the bereaved, regardless of whether their deceased loved one was a hospice patient.
Among their events are Living Through Loss, a series of support groups for people who are bereaved. The February session was a “self-care health fair” featuring a massage therapist and presentations on aromatherapy and meditation.
Stephanie Price, a social worker at Blanchard Valley Hospital’s psychiatric unit, presented on essential oils and aromatherapy. She said essential oils can be used to manage stress and deal with depression or grief. If you go somewhere, the scent may immediately trigger a memory, which could lead to pleasure or to “challenging memories” — for example, being in a hospital may remind you of losing a loved one as you smell that hospital smell. So many hospitals are using essential oils like lavender, lemon, lime or wild orange, she explained.
The “self-care health fair” was designed to encourage people to take care of themselves. Bridge Bereavement Coordinator Niki Sidle said “the physical you” is just as important as the emotional you.
The event featured a massage therapist who offered chair massages to attendees. “We carry so much tension and stress” in our shoulders, back, neck and legs, Sidle said. While some people are “hesitant” and don’t like being touched, “Just remember: hahhh,” she said, with an exhalation of relief.
Also at the health fair there was a blood pressure cuff, and medication management. Stress balls and coloring pages were available, along with three types of tea.
Sidle said coloring is one of the closest ways to get into a state like meditation without actually meditating. She said some people are hesitant at first and may think it is juvenile, imagining themselves as a child with a box of crayons. She encourages instead using other implements like markers and pencils, and noted that there are many intricate coloring books out there.
Yoga instructor and meditation practitioner Karen Cline gave a presentation on several types of meditation at the self-care health fair.
Mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress and lower the blood pressure and heart rate, as well as boosting the immune system, Cline said. Meditating for three minutes every day is more beneficial than meditating for an hour at a time just one day a week. Even if it’s just for a few minutes in the morning as your tea is steeping, just sit and breathe, focusing on the breath, Cline said.
Cline said meditation leads to sleeping better.
Sidle said if people don’t sleep, there are a lot of physical effects. She and her colleagues often see physical symptoms of grief, including “extreme fatigue,” brain fog and pain as people carry around so much stress that their muscles are tense.
Sidle said grief affects people physically — in addition to not sleeping well, they may eat too much or not at all. But many people go to the doctor with physical symptoms and don’t think to tell the doctor they’ve recently experienced a death, she said.
She said doctors can also refer to bereavement counselors. Bridge can offer help with bereavement, and can refer to other counselors in the area.
“Just talk to your doctor,” Sidle said.
Grief and depression
The January Living Through Loss program focused on grief and depression.
Sidle said people use the term “depression” readily, but may not realize there is a difference between having signs and symptoms of depression, and being clinically depressed.
The presenter was Jamie Wilkinson-Franks, a counselor at Stepping Stones Counseling Center who is among those Sidle refers clients to if they need more help.
Wilkinson-Franks said there is a subtle, important difference between grief and depression.
“Because you’re grieving does not mean that you are clinically depressed,” she said.
She said if she is looking for depression, one difference is that it may be that rather than talking about that person who has died, the survivor is feeling like they themselves are horrible, and every area of their life is bad “and just gray and yucky.”
Wilkinson-Franks said medications can have side effects and “We don’t want to medicate something that’s a normal response.” But in some cases, medications can help get needed chemicals moving in the brain. Physical activity, whether walking or stretching, can also affect a person’s chemistry similar to an antidepressant, she said.
Sidle often sees that people who have in the past experienced depression will be more prone, if someone they love dies, to falling back into “kind of those pits of despair.” And a lot of times people who are already taking medication for depression may find it is not as effective, she said.
Sidle said sometimes symptoms will surface after grief, but it may not mean long-term depression.
In addition to the other emotional issues, there are other stresses that come with the bereavement process — the death of a spouse might mean not just the loss of companionship and support, but the loss of income and therefore financial troubles, for example.
A normal process
Wilkinson-Franks said the grief process does not end. A friend or family may express surprise that a person is still feeling this way after some time has passed — but while well meant, this can be a form of shame.
“And then you’re telling them it’s not OK to talk to you,” she said. From then on, if you ask how they are, they will likely say “I’m fine!” even if they’re not.
While there is “an element of time that heals all wounds,” not talking about the subject can make it worse.
Others may assume life will just move on, but there is a piece of you missing.
“You’ve lost somebody that you cared very, very deeply about,” she said.
There may be stories and memories you shared only with that person, little things only the two of you knew.
Wilkinson-Franks said the “stages” of grief are no longer viewed as going through one, then the next, in order. Instead, it’s more circular, going through multiple stages at once, “kind of like a spiderweb.” Perhaps it has been 18 months since your spouse’s death. Going through a box, you find pictures — and the numbness comes back.
“And it’s very real and true,” she said.
Grief is an incredibly important natural process, Wilkinson-Franks said. Every year, about 5 to 9 percent of the population experiences grief. And everyone will experience it at some point.
She said grief can come from the death of a loved one, but also from other losses — say, a divorce, or loss of a job.
Wilkinson-Franks said people don’t choose to have something like this happen. Maybe you want to blame someone, and this is normal. However, “We can live a happy and fulfilling life,” even though part of us is not there anymore, she said.
She said a person may feel regret — wishing they had called 911 sooner, or wondering why they had picked that fight that morning. Or maybe they wish they had worked out longstanding issues with their father, but can’t do anything about it now. Regret “can keep us stuck sometimes,” she said.
She asks her clients, knowing that they cannot bring the person back, what do they want their life to look like now? Maybe the person wants to be in their garden again, or having fun with their children. Or they want to remember the happy moments.
She advocated finding good connections, such as friendships and support groups. Isolation “can be really, really hard,” she warned.
Wilkinson-Franks said people who are grieving should avoid alcohol, as it is a depressant, and anything else addicting like gambling or watching too much television if your goal is “numbing the experience.”
At the end of the day, you still have the loss, she said. You are still hurting. But it’s about being able to express it.
“Grief is a normal process. … You may not feel normal, but it is a normal process,” Wilkinson-Franks said.
The next Living Through Loss program is “The Food & Mood Connection,” with registered dietitian Rachel Snyder, from 7-8:30 p.m. March 20 at Blanchard Valley Hospital’s Marathon Auditorium. Registration is appreciated but not required.
Bridge Hospice also offers other support groups, including one for children. Other resources include a lending library of books, grief and loss education, referral assistance and one-on-one support. For more information, call 419-423-5351.