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Archive for May, 2022

The Lonely, Difficult Journey of COVID Grievers

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“Oh my god, they are going to blame overweight people for their own deaths.” This was my first thought in the winter or spring of 2020 when I initially heard about the risk factors leading to death by COVID. The list included obesity, diabetes, old age, compromised immune systems, and being Black.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

My mind revisited those first weeks of the pandemic as I saw an interview with Ed Yong of The Atlantic on the PBS News Hour. For two years, he has been talking to COVID grievers. You can read his most recent article, “The Final Pandemic Betrayal,” here or watch the seven-minute PBS interview here.

I wrote blogs about the grief rituals after the death of my mother-in-law during COVID and public displays of remembrance of those who died. Now Ed Yong has written and talked in the most moving fashion about the more than 9 million fellow Americans who have lost a close relative to the virus.

COVID Grievers Face an Unprecedented Time to Grieve

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

We who have NOT lost someone to COVID have little concept of the unique, profound, and enduring grief now being visited upon these grievers. Here is the story of a mother who watched her son die on her phone:

“Teresita Horne had spent more than a week on a breathing machine when her 13-year-old son, Donovan, died in a different hospital; she watched him die on her phone. ‘I remember screaming,’ she told me. ‘When your kids are sick, they need you, but I couldn’t be there to comfort him. I couldn’t hold his hand one last time.’”

Don’t ask, “Were they vaccinated?”

Then there was the tone in our questions to those who lost a loved one to COVID. “Did they get the vaccine?” What does that have to do with our attempt to reach out to someone caught up in grief? The mere question implies that there was something the dead person should have done or, worse yet, the griever should have done to prevent the death. Aside from appeasing our curiosity about if they got the vaccine, how does that question comfort the bereaved?

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Again, Yong writes, “Many grievers end up blaming themselves. Should I have pulled them out of that nursing home? Should I have pushed them harder to get vaccinated? And worst of all: Did I give them COVID?“

He concludes: In her book, The Myth of Closure, Pauline Boss, a therapist and pioneer in the study of ambiguous loss, offers some advice for pandemic grievers: ‘It is not closure you need but certainty that your loved one is gone, that they understood why you could not be there to comfort them, that they loved you and forgave you in their last moments of life,’ she wrote. Instead of waiting for a clean but mythical endpoint to one’s loss, it is better to search for ‘meaning and purpose in our lives after this horrific time in history,’” she said.

Do yourself a favor. Read Yong’s article or listen to the short interview. I was moved by the stories of these COVID grievers

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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Cover Photo by Shane on Unsplash

The Rise of Cremations and Our Need to be with the Dead

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While we were planning a funeral for her 22-year-old son, Scott, she put down her beer, took the cigarette from her lips, and said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?” A lighter moment amid grief. Scott died from a long and debilitating illness. He may have weighed 80 pounds in the end.

I lived a few doors down from Scott and his family for four years. His sisters babysat my kids. I was Scott’s den leader in Cub Scouts. As disease ravaged his young body, Scott graduated from college in a wheelchair. I was so privileged to be a part of his care.

In Scott’s last days, one of my fellow chaplains called me as he was preparing to leave town on vacation. He was aware I was an old friend of Scott and his family. He asked if I could check in on Scott and even do the funeral if he died. I was glad to do it.

On my second visit to see Scott in our hospice in-patient unit, I could tell he was taking his last breaths. His mom and sisters were at his side. He had been in such great pain that he was totally sedated. His breathing stopped. The tears flowed after months of anticipating this moment.

I summoned the nurse. She asked Scott’s mother, “Would you like to hold him?” Of course, she would. It had been months since she could even touch him because of the pain.

The nurse gathered the sheet around Scott’s body and placed him in his mother’s lap. She held him tenderly, stroking his face, and telling him of her love. I later told a friend of the scene and he said it reminded him of Michelangelo’s Pietà. It was indeed a very similar scene, a mother cradling the body of her broken son.

A few days later, I told Scott’s mother about my friend’s comment. That’s when, beer and cigarette in hand, she said, “So, I remind you of the Virgin Mary?”

This experience came to mind as I read a Washington Post story about the stunning rise in the use of cremation. Now, 57% of our dead are cremated compared to 27% just two decades ago. Along with the traditional casket burials, Americans are having less to do with the dead. Many have no rituals at all surrounding the death of one they love.

Undertaker Author Thomas Lynch

Many want to avoid the greater expense of a traditional funeral and burial. But, perhaps, many want to avoid being around the dead body or the emotional strain of the rituals. Thomas Lynch, a Michigan poet and funeral director of 50 years said in the Post article, “People want the body disappeared, pretty much. I think it reminds us of what we lost.” In the United States, Lynch notes, “this is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”

I will say, there is another trend that runs counter to this criticism that we Americans are avoiding the dead. More and more people are dying at home which gives the family the opportunity to be with the departed. A century ago, almost everyone died at home. This can provide that ritual lost with the demise of the traditional funeral.

Rest in peace.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

The Brutal Truth of Growing Through Grief…It’s Normal

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Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.

 She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”

This is how David Brooks starts a recent piece in The New York Times, “Some People Turn Suffering Into Wisdom.” I might as well borrow from one of the best. Brooks often writes about living life — its goodness and the difficulties. In this one, he covers the landscape of grief and trauma and moving on.

 This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. The social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable, and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.

My few (and relatively small) hard knocks in life taught me years ago about the lesson of impermanence. That is — all things change. The grief that follows loss bumps up to this piece of wisdom. This is normal. I have written before about my habit of journaling. I didn’t say then that I tend to journal more and with more passion when things are not going so well in my life. Brooks introduced an exercise to use journaling to tell our stories differently.

 Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. The social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.

I never took my blood pressure and can’t quantify how much, if at all, journaling helped me. I would have to go back through the losses in my life and do it over WITHOUT journaling — no, thank you. But I do agree with Brooks. Some people take grief and loss and make a new life.

Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.

David Brooks’ most recent book is The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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