Many of us encounter grief in one of its many forms every day in our work.
It’s part of the job. Most of the time I am trying to assist people with being resilient. Only in the last three or four years have I begun to take seriously Mary Oliver’s sagacity and apply it to grief. “Pay attention, / Be astonished, / Tell about it.”
If you are a clinical social worker, you may be listening to people coming to terms with deep sadness from divorce, job loss, disappointed hopes, domestic abuse, childhood trauma.
If you work with elders who suffer physical frailty or dementia, you often encounter anticipatory grief in their families and friends who are witnesses to their loved one’s diminishment.
Working in health care, you may lead support groups, or do case planning with families and patients that can morph into a spontaneous support group in which you have to take the temperature of the group, and hit the ground running to facilitate both emotions and practical plans.
If you work in hospice, you may be engaged daily in the most hands-on care for body and soul, as well as moments that some would say are a glimpse of the sacred.
I had a mentor years ago who advised me that my primary task was to pay attention to the good things happening all around me if I wanted to last.
Otherwise, she cautioned, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming “emotional shredded cardboard.” By this she meant that the weight of the difficulties in which we meet people can tear us to pieces, or strip us down until our spirits wither. She recommended a middle way, in which we resist choking off our natural empathy, and instead cultivate a rich inner life that is able to attend to, work with, and release the emotions that accompany our work.
At the time, I was so young, that I was not even sure what she was trying to tell me. But the image of becoming emotional shredded cardboard was so vivid, that I never forgot it. I didn’t know what she meant, but I knew that seemed like an undesirable outcome!
Fast forward a few decades, and this advice from Mary Oliver shows up in my life.
“Pay attention, / Be astonished, / Tell about it.”
Last summer both of my parents died suddenly, a month apart. I won’t kid you, it was a nightmare. At the same time, it was full of extraordinary moments of grace (however you might understand grace).
I asked myself how I would keep myself going during weeks of flights from Cleveland to Arizona, being with my Dad in hospice, followed closely by the shock of a massive stroke and hospice with my Mom.
I did a lot of thinking about paying attention to good things happening.
It wasn’t always easy, but making that choice transformed the whole difficult experience. Even in hospice, in grief, in shock, there are things to be grateful for, to be amazed by.
I was moved by the exquisite care with which a nurse’s aide swabbed out my mom’s mouth for her comfort. I was grateful and moved by the respect shown to my Dad, who seemed non-responsive, but who was spoken to gently, and by name, each time the staff came in to turn him.
How well trained these people were. How professional and skillful. And then it dawned on me that each them represented a multitude of other skillful, professional, loving hearts who championed their admission to med school, who acted as a mentor or preceptor in a nursing school, and behind them the founders, and the donors that keep those places of professional preparation humming. The social workers at the hospice were unbelievably busy, and unfailingly kind and competent. I invited myself to be astonished at my tremendous luck at having these people inserted into my days during the worst times of my life.
Simple comforts kept me going.
There were other comforts too. One chaplain approached me with what I can only describe as “positive bluster” designed to signal that his visit was a quick in and out, to “check that patient off my list.” In contrast, the chaplain who visited the next day asked me how I was doing, and actually wanted to know. He listened. He offered a consolation of presence, and eschewed easy comforts and platitudes. How grateful I was, and how ready to notice and appreciate that ministerial presence.
Your work is hard. Some days you probably think, why did I ever choose THIS work—I could have opened an eco-responsible pet shop and raised happy puppies and guppies! I know that sometimes when my work is hard, especially during these last few years of working full time, caring for my parents as they became more frail, and trying to meet deadlines for a manuscript, opening a pet shop looks pretty good. And to be honest, after my parents had passed, and the household goods had been distributed, I spent about 5 days under a quilt doing glorious nothing.
Still, the experience of paying attention, and being astonished despite having the fogginess of “grief brain” and being more tired than I can ever remember being, was a game changer for me. There is always something, no matter how small, to be amazed by.
Thank you for letting me Tell about it.
Kim Langley, M.Ed is a speaker, trainer, and retreat leader, providing seminars for CEU’s to nurses, social workers, and foster parents. Kim's book, Send My Roots Rain: a companion for the grief journey will be released April 9, 2019. Pre-order your copy now on Amazon.com and Paraclete Press.