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10 Meaningful Actions for Grief Support Leadership

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By Karen Nicola

I have a number of friends who work and live in senior living communities and we have been having conversations about death and dying. I have been particularly touched by the very real tension they face each day. On one hand, they are fully committed to providing an authentic quality of life for residents, and on the other, they know that one day, relatively soon, those residents will die.

The Most Difficult Thing to Deal With

What comes out of these conversations is that most don’t really quite know how to deal with death and dying . . . they wish they had training in this area:

No, we haven’t had any training on how to prepare for the death of a resident.”  

“We don’t really have a protocol for recognizing a resident after their death.”

“It is so difficult to see the family move out the personal belongings of a resident after they have died. I just don’t know what to say.”

“I’m beginning to feel calloused when I hear the news that a resident has died. I think I’m doing this to protect my emotions and I’m not sure if that is best for me.”

“When residents die and nothing is done to remember them, I wonder what will happen after I die. Will anybody remember that I lived?"

As a grief educator and grief coach, these honest comments make a perfect foundation for learning ways to both honor someone in their death and how to deal with grief in a healthy way. Here are just a few easy-to-implement actions that can bring honor and comfort for times of grief in your senior living community:

The List of 10

  1. Post notices when a resident dies and encourage the staff to leave a written memory on a message board.

  2. Look for a grief educator who can provide expert grief training for your staff.

  3. Let the staff know that they are welcome to chat with you about their feelings when a resident close to them has died.

  4. Learn what to say to family members and teach your staff these comforting comments.

  5. Plant a special plant in honor of the resident who died.

  6. Display flowers in their memory.

  7. Hold an in-house memorial service so that residents and staff can come together to share their memories and console one another -- include a small reception and a display of photos if possible.  Invite the family to attend as well.

  8. Let residents know there is a grief coach they can call for additional support.

  9. Offer a grief education mini-seminar for the residents.

  10. Be free to express your own tears with either residents or staff. Your shared sorrow brings hearts together and this makes strong connections rather than building walls of self-protection.

When an executive director begins intentionally planning for grief care for her staff and residents, no doubt she'll find that a team approach helps to share the responsibilities of the grief care protocol. Their community demonstrates evidences of becoming stronger and more connected with one another. Personally, the ED is more likely to experience greater satisfaction, knowing she is directly contributing to the wellbeing of everyone under her leadership.

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