A Grief Support System Checklist

Grief experts often ask the bereaved to check their support system. What is it? How do you put a support system together? My husband has undergone three emergency surgeries and been in intensive care for eight days. After his first surgery I started contacting people in my support system. This turned out to be a good decision, one that made me feel better.

Charles Seashore describes the purposes and parts of a support system in his article, “Developing and Using Personal Support System,” published on the National Training Laboratories (NTL) website. According to Seashore, a support system is a resource pool, sources of help to use when necessary, and leaves you stronger. A support system doesn’t have to be reciprocal and you don’t need to contact all the people on it.

“Keeping one’s support system up-to-date and relevant to one’s goals requires on-going assessment of the kinds of people who are currently available,” he explains.

I thought my support system was current, but my husband’s emergency surgeries revealed several gaps. For example, many of the people on my list are about my age, which means they are dealing with similar issues, and need support themselves. If you are grieving now you need support from caring people and groups. This list will help you create and update your grief support system.

  • My grief support system is current. Yes ____ No ____
  • It includes family members, friends, work colleagues, and spiritual/religious support. Yes ____ No ____
  • There are people of varying ages in my support system. Yes ____ No ____
  • All of the people in my support system are competent. Yes ____ No ____
  • Many of these people are role models. Yes ____ No ____
  • I have similar interests to the people in my support system. Yes ____ No ____
  • The people in my support system have skills and contacts that enable them to act quickly. Yes ____ No ____
  • Some of the people in my support system live close by. Yes ____ No ____
  • Different community groups are represented in my support system. Yes ____ No ____
  • I have explored back-up resources for my support system. Yes ____ No ____
  • Support groups are part of my support system. Yes ____ No ____
  • I have reviewed my support system in the last six months. Yes ____ No ____
  • Your grief support system needs revamping if you answered “no” often. Update your support system today and turn to it for comfort when necessary.

by Harriet Hodgson

Picture Your Grief History on a Loss Time Line

I had to take my husband to the hospital emergency department last week. Although I’ve done this before, it was more difficult this time. Five days ago my husband had surgery and he felt tired and “beat up.” Certainly, he didn’t need any more medical complications. After undergoing some tests, he was transferred by ambulance from one hospital to another, and re-admitted.

I thought I would never see him again.

At one o’clock in the morning I crawled into bed and, to my surprise, slept well. When I woke up I still had anticipatory grief feelings. Because I’ve experienced them before, I recognized them, and took steps to contain my fears. I focused on the facts. The healthcare team had examined my husband, discovered he had an infection, and given him medication for it. His vital signs were stable and my husband wasn’t in danger of dying.

Then I had a revelation. The past losses in my life were making my anticipatory grief worse. What is a loss and what is a loss history?

Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS answers these questions in “Enhancing Well-Being by Understanding Grief and Taking a Loss History,” posted on the Medical Wellness archives website. She defines loss as the disappearance of something cherished and says it is “a byproduct of living.” Grief is a normal response to loss, she continues, and taking a loss history can help you understand the scope of your grief.

I thought about the losses I’ve suffered in the past eight years: death of my daughter, death of my father-in-law, death of my brother, death of my twin grandchildren’s father. If I were to make a time line of my losses, 2007 would show this cluster. Another cluster would appear in 2013, when my husband’s aorta dissected and he had three emergency operations. During the third operation my husband suffered a spinal stroke that paralyzed his legs. The next year, 2014, would show secondary losses related to this development: loss of a home (we had to move to a one-level place), loss of a strong, active husband, and loss of independence when I became his caregiver.

Making a loss time line may help you. Draw a horizontal line on paper. List your losses and the dates of these losses above the line. Your losses may include loss of a job, friends moving away, death of a child, developing chronic illness, loss of a beloved pet, and other events that make you feel bereft. Which year has the biggest cluster? Which loss had the greatest impact on you?

After you suffer a loss you need to take care of yourself. Eat regular, balanced meals. Try to get enough sleep. Stick to your daily routine. Keep some social connections. Join a support group. Spend time with people who understand your loss, such as The Compassionate Friends. Get a medical checkup and tell your doctor about your losses. As Dyer notes, sharing this information can help you “change, integrate the loss, begin living again, and restore balance, energy, and well-being” to your life.

Start your time line now and see the picture that appears. You may have more losses than you think.

by Harriet Hodgson

Creating Action Memorials in Memory of Your Loved Ones

After a loved one dies it is natural to remember that person with memorials.   You may give money to a national health organization or plant a memorial tree in your yard.  Some family members make quilts and teddy bears from their loved one’s clothing. Others establish non-profit foundations in memory of loved ones.      

More memorials are detailed in the article, “Grief & Bereavement,” published on the Memorial Online website.  Keeping a journal, scrapbook, and multi-media presentations are ways to remember a loved one, according to the article.  “Online memorials are becoming popular,” the article says, and these memorials include stories and photos.

My husband and I lost four loved ones within nine months and we wanted to honor them.  We had memorial services in honor of our daughter and former son-in-law. We flew to Long Island and attended a memorial service in honor of my brother.  In honor of my father-in-law, family members gathered together for a favorite foods dinner – a menu of Dad’s favorite, and often unhealthy, foods.

Many grief experts see memorials as a way to cope with grief.  Judy Tatalbaum, in her book, “The Courage to Grieve,” discusses ways to resolve grief.  “Learning how to finish is an important skill for each of us to develop,” she writes, “whether we are facing finishing with dead people or with live ones.”  I see memorials as part of grief resolution, yet I still want to remember my loved ones and the joy they brought to my life.

Therese A. Rando, PhD, explores this point in her book, “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies.”  “Perhaps the most effective way of keeping your loved one alive is through your own life and actions,” she writes.  We do this by telling stories about loved ones, acting on their values, enjoying and appreciating life more, and changing behaviors.

In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold S. Kushner talks about life’s troubles and challenges.  “None of us can avoid the problem of why bad things happen to good people,” he writes. Sooner or later, he notes, we all play the role of Job in the Bible, as a victim of tragedy, or family member, or friend and comforter.  “The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues.”

I searched for satisfying ways remember and honor my deceased loved ones.  The answer came to me on the second anniversary of my daughter’s death and my father-in-law’s death.  My answer was to take their personality strengths and make them my own.

In memory of my daughter (who had a marvelous sense of humor), I laugh more.  

In memory of my father-in-law I stand up for honesty and ethics.  

In memory of my brother I have continued my love of reading and share it with others.  

In memory of my former son-in-law, I appreciate nature even more.

These internal memorials are comforting and, as time passes, I think they will be even more comforting.  They give me strength to move forward with life and enjoy every minute.

by Harriet Hodgson

A Dozen Ways to Make Good Things from Grief

For me, 2007 was the year of death. That year four family members died, my daughter (mother of my twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother, and the twins’ father. How would I survive multiple losses? Would I survive? Questions like these led to an ongoing study of grief.

I visited online support communities, read online articles, and countless grief books. The Courage to Grieve, by Judy Tatelbaum was especially helpful. When I finished the book I felt like she had written it just for me. Tatelbaum is more than a psychotherapist, she lives with grief, and understands its challenges.

“We need to make something good come from our grief,” she writes. “Making our grief meaningful can be the antidote to despair and suffering as well as a stepping stone to personal growth.”

Tatelbaum’s words strengthened my resolve. I refused to let death defeat me. If I believed in myself, I could—and did—make good things from grief. What good things could you make? Here are a dozen ideas from my research and experience.

    1. Donate to a health organization. National health organizations are always looking for research funds. If your loved one died of a heart attack, you may wish to donate to the American Heart Association. Visit The National Health Council website, www.nationalhealthcouncil.org and read the list of organizations worthy of your support.
    2. Give books to the public library that represent your loved one’s interests. I belong to an historic study club. When a member dies, we contact the library and ask for book suggestions about the deceased member’s interests—cooking, gardening, singing, etc. We selected a title, purchase the book, and the library adds a “Donated in memory of ____” bookplate.
    3. Volunteer in memory of your loved one. My brother loved books and I do too. In his memory, I volunteered at the Friends of the Public Library Book Store for several years. I enjoyed talking with customers and shelving the donated books. Unfortunately, I had to give up volunteering to care for my disabled husband.

 

  • Create a memorial quilt from your loved one’s clothes. If you’re a quilter, you may make the quilt yourself. You may also pay someone to make it for you. The “What’s Your Grief” website, https://whatsyourgrief.com, tells you how to do this.  “Each quilt story resonates in its own special way,” according to quilter Lori Mason. Watch the video for more information.

 

  • Create a memory bear. You’ll find dozens of photos of memory bears on the  Internet. The bears are made from a deceased loved one’s clothing. Memory bears, or Forget Me Not bears, as they are also called, may serve as linking objects for grieving children. One website has a free bear pattern for home sewers.
  • Donate to your place of worship. A friend of mine donated money for a new stained glass window in the sanctuary of his church. This donation had lasting meaning for the widower. “Every time I look at the window I think of my wife,” he commented. You may donate to a general fund or a specific fund at your church, synagogue, or mosque.
  • Plant a small memorial garden in your yard. The garden could include some of your loved one’s favorite plants, such as tulips. Flowering shrubs are nice because they symbolize life. Plan your garden before you start digging in the soil. Include flowers and shrubs that bloom at different times of the year.
  • Write a story or article about your loved one. Submit your story to “Grief Digest” magazine, a church publication, or local magazine. Tell readers about your loved one and what made her or him special. Also tell them how they can benefit from your grief experience.
  • Commission music in memory of your loved one. After our daughter died, my husband and I gave money to our church choir for sheet music. The co-directors suggested commissioning a song in memory of Helen. The debut of the song, “We Remember Them” by composer Elizabeth Alexander was emotional and satisfying at the same time. The thought of other choirs singing Helen’s song gives me chills.
  • Plant a tree in the forest. The U.S. National Forest Service, https://thetreesremember.com/memorial-trees/ has a lovely program for planning trees in barren forest areas. The fee covers the cost of an elegant card, personal message, small, pewter Eternity Memorial Tree charm, and information on the global impact of planting. “Not all programs are located in U.S. National Forests,” the website notes. “See our planting location map for descriptions of our different planting programs types.”
  • Write books to help others. Many bereaved people have done this. Several years ago, I participated in a panel discussion at The Compassionate Friends national conference for people who wanted to get their books published. The meeting room was so packed that people were standing in the back. A published author may be willing to help you. I mentor fledging authors and am happy to do it.
  • Give talks about your loved one and rebounding from grief. Your story may help others. Preparing the talk may also help you. When you can talk about your loved one without sobbing, you are on the recovery road, and moving forward. And you are changing in the process.

 

 

Poet and priest John O ’Donohue, in his book To Bless the Space Between Us, writes about life’s between times. The last verse of his poem, “For The Interim Time,” describes grief reconciliation and recovery. Changes are happening in your mind, he explains, and becoming a new person is difficult and slow work. The more faithfully you can endure here, The more refined your heart will become, For your arrival to a new dawn.

Making good things from grief will create that dawn and the new life that awaits you.

by Harriet Hodgson

Answers to the Grief Question, “How are You?”

In 2007 I lost four family members, my elder daughter, father-in-law, brother and former son-in-law.  

My daughter Helen, mother of my twin grandkids (one boy, one girl) and her former husband died from the injuries they received in separate car crashes. Helen died in November and the twins’ father died in November. His death made my twin grandchildren orphans and my husband and me their court-appointed guardians.

Suddenly, we were GRGs, grandparents raising grandchildren.  

Family members and friends couldn’t believe the story. “Hollywood would reject it,” a friend commented. “Your story is unbelievable and too emotional.” Grieving for four family members and raising grandchildren has been the greatest challenge of my life.  I found some information about recovering from multiple losses on the Internet, but it wasn’t enough. Recovering from multiple losses was up to me.

I began to dread the question, “How are you?”  First of all, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Most of the people who asked the question expected me to say, “Fine.” I wasn’t fine and almost prostrate with grief. In self-defense, I came up with five answers to this question.

 

  • I’m fine. This is the answer I used early in my grief journey. People expected this answer and I gave it to them.

 

  • I’m okay. I liked this answer because it fit all conversations and people. Besides, okay is a commonly used term
  • I’m getting along. This was the answer I used in the middle stage of grief. It implied progress and seemed to satisfy people.
  • I’m coping. After a year and a half I found the courage to say this. I only used the answer with close friends.
  • I’m good. Ten years have passed since my daughter died and I can truthfully say I’m good. Although I’m not living the life I thought I would be living, I have a rewarding life.

 

 

Today, my grandkids are adults and living their own lives. My granddaughter has an executive position at Salvation Army headquarters in St. Paul. She is also an independent photographer. My grandson is a freshman at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. I’m so proud of them I could shout their praises from roof tops. When I climb into bed at night, I’m grateful for my grandkids, my husband, and my loving family.

Deep in my heart, I know I made good things from grief. You may do this too. Start by trying the answers to the question, “How are you?” These answers may move you forward on the recovery path. Give to others, even though you have little to give. Live mindfully and appreciate every moment of the day. Remember that love never dies and is always with you.

Hard as it is to believe now, the day will come when you feel happy again. And you deserve it!

by Harriet Hodgson

Common Grief Reactions

Common Grief Reactions of Adults

Physical Reactions

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Appetite disturbance/change in weight
  • Indigestion
  • Headaches
  •  Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sights, sounds, smell touch
  • Dry mouth
  • Tightness in chest
  •  Hollowness in the stomach
  • Lump in throat
  •  Excessive sweating
  •  Immune system—greater susceptibility to illness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  •  Dizziness
  • Body aches/nausea

Mental Reactions

  • Short term memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating, increased errors and accidents
  • Confusion, aimlessness
  • Preoccupation with the loss, rumination
  • Routine takes effort, decreased self-esteem, passivity
  • Difficulty making decisions

Emotional Reactions

  • A wide range of feelings that may include numbness, anger, sadness
  • depression, anxiety, despair loneliness, yearning, vulnerability
  • A sense that any expression of emotion may be “out of control”
  • Wide mood swings that may be moment to moment initially

Spiritual Reactions

  • Why questions
  • Anger at God
  • A change in beliefs and values
  • Change in identity
  • Loss or strengthening of faith
  • A need to find meaning in the loss

Copyright 1996, Center for Grief, Loss & Transition
Provided by:
Center for Grief Education and Support, Seasons Hospice
1696 Greenview Drive SW, Rochester MN  55902
Phone:  507-285-1930   E-mail: shbp@seasonshospice.org