By Amy Osmond Cook
In a hallway at Owyhee Health and Rehabilitation in Homedale, Idaho, you will find pictures of residents who have passed away. You might think this would be a place of sadness and despair, but it is not. Instead, it is a powerful space for families and other residents to remember their friends and loved ones.
“Families come to the wall the same way they would come to a gravesite,” said Callie Hann, RN at Owyhee Health and Rehabilitation. “And, whenever possible, our staff attends the viewings of our guests who have passed.”
Skilled nursing facilities that are run well provide a sense of community for older adults. Many form deep bonds with the staff and other residents. These communities are important when a resident dies, and it’s important to create meaningful ways for everyone to share in the grieving process.
Supporting Your Residents
Here are a few ways to help support your residents during the difficult but inevitable passing of a friend:
Recognize the power of rituals in healing. Rituals are part of our culture and heritage. They provide a way for individuals to engage in a physical act that can bring closure and celebration to a person’s life. Rituals allow those who mourn a way to either publically or privately vent their grief, leading to a decrease in sadness.
Engage in a specific ritual for residents who have passed. At Spring House Estates, a retirement community in Philadelphia, families are given snacks, poetry, and care items. After the passing of a resident, a white memory quilt made by residents is draped across the body and later placed on the bed. Other facilities create plaques or other specific memorial items.
Create a public place or event for grieving. In her book, “Social Work Practice in Nursing Homes,” Julie Sahlins suggests several activities staff and residents can engage in to mourn and celebrate those who have passed. Some of these suggestions include a memorial tea service, remembrance tables, and annual memorial services. According to Sahlins, these rituals allow the entire community to honor the dead, and also validate the importance of the living.
Allow the family to be a part of the community grieving process. Showing family members the impact that a resident has had on a community is a wonderful way to pay homage to their memory. Residents may wish to write letters or cards to family members to express their appreciation and respect.
Talk about those who pass. Rather than whisking out deceased residents through the back door, staff should be mindful of other residents who want to know about their friends. Asking residents ahead of time for permission to inform their friends about their passing can help address privacy and legal concerns.
Sorrow and grief after the passing of a friend is inevitable and a normal part of our relationships. Rather than concealing or brushing aside the pain as a fact of life, using rituals, public memorials, engaging family, and having conversations can enhance the relationships with the living and provide closure to those who mourn.