Grieving for the people we love after they die is a behavior as innate and natural as loving them in life. And while grief is a universal experience, it’s never easy to deal with — especially when a loved one passes after an emotional battle with cancer.
That’s why City of Hope offers bereavement support groups designed specifically for those who have lost loved ones to cancer. “It’s important to have that continuum of care,” says Jo Ann Namm, M.S., certified child life specialist, and co-facilitator of City of Hope’s bereavement support groups. “We want families and caregivers to know they are not forgotten after the patient dies, and we try to help people come together so they can better understand and embrace their grief.”
Through 12 weekly meetings, relatives learn about grief, mourning, communication, healing and coping strategies. Maybe more important, they find companionship and validation from others experiencing similar loss, disconnect and confusion about how to move forward.
With a new group beginning Feb. 17, Namm and her colleagues share five ways bereaved loved ones can work through the grieving process, and describe how attending a support group can often help.
Advocate for yourself
Bereaved loved ones may find themselves interacting day-to-day with acquaintances and co-workers who don’t understand what they’re going through. While not everyone may relate to the loss of a loved one, Namm and her team suggest keeping distance from people who are dismissive or unsupportive. “We consider people who aren’t helpful to be toxic,” says Estella Barrios, M.S.W., and co-facilitator of City of Hope’s bereavement support groups. In other cases, it may be best to try and educate them. In those situations, Barrios recommends being direct and advocating for yourself, by explaining that everyone has the right to grieve in whatever way they choose, that grief is not something you have to “get over,” and by offering suggestions for ways they could be helpful.
Another challenge many people face while grieving is worrying about what’s “normal,” and whether their grieving process is taking too long, or if there’s something wrong with them for feeling the way they do. “We want people to realize there’s no normal timeframe, and everybody grieves differently,” says Lindsey Soderstrom, M.S.W., clinical social worker and co-facilitator of City of Hope’s bereavement support groups. “This is a new normal, and you’ll never completely get over it. Grief will be with you for the rest of your life, and that’s OK.”
Recognize your triggers
Grief isn’t a constant emotion. It comes in waves or bursts and can often be triggered by items, words or activities that remind you of your lost loved one. “Triggers can be difficult, especially during holidays or special events,” Namm explains. “Group members help each other by talking about new plans and new rituals, but it’s also important to remember and talk about these triggers.” One activity they offer in the group is a memory table, where people can bring something of their loved one's to share and talk about. “We encourage them to talk about that person who died,”Namm says. “They shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Embrace the healing power of ceremonies
A ceremony such as a wake, funeral or celebration of life can be an important symbolic step in dealing with grief. City of Hope’s support groups do include a chaplain, but regardless of individual religious beliefs, a ceremony can help navigate feelings of grief by allowing friends and loved ones to talk about their experiences with the deceased. “We encourage any kind of ritual that will help begin a grief journey,” says Marisol Trujillo M.S., C.C.L.S., says. “Our last support group ended with everybody getting a candle holder that could hold photos of their loved once, and that was well received.”
Try out different support groups and therapy options
Bereavement support groups can be a huge help to those who choose to participate, but they’re not for everybody. “Some people find they prefer one-on-one sessions with a therapist, while others prefer a group setting,” Soderstrom says. “We’re all professionals, and we meet with everyone ahead of time individually, to talk about their grief history and see if they would benefit from therapy or additional support.”
City of Hope's 12-week Bereavement Support Group begins Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 6 p.m. It is offered free of charge and includes dinner. To register (required), please call 626-218-5781 or 626-218-0243.
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