A couple of weeks into our internship, Pam and I were asked by residents at the Manor to start a grief support group. When I realized what was being asked of us I was simultaneously humbled and a little apprehensive. We had of course covered grief and death in our pastoral classes but this would be the first time that we would be leading a group.
Leading is what we ended up not doing. We facilitated the group and walked along side the members of the group as companions as we met each Friday afternoon for six weeks. We had the back up of our supervisor, Fr. Jacobsen, and also a wonderful resource that he had put us onto “Companioning the Bereaved – A Soulful Guide for Caregivers” by Alan D. Wolfelt. The book title is shared here with a very strong recommendation.
Our group of five plus Pam and I met and I would say that we all got different things from the group, everyone was at a different stage of grieving. What was common though was that no-one had really talked about their journey of grief in a deeply meaningful way. The act of sharing, of being accepted and of listening to others proved to be important fuel for the journey.
On another occasion I had the opportunity to talk about death with one of the residents at the Villa. He had certain wishes, things he wanted to say and after we talked he realized that the conversation that we just had was a conversation that he also needed to have with his family.
Our culture does not encourage us to talk about death, before death occurs. Also when we have experienced death of someone else our culture patterns the norm of what grief should look like. But grief has no norm, has no set path. I did an experiment on Saturday evening after I got home from an afternoon at the Villa and tried to talk to my husband about death. He didn’t want to talk about it – clearly I have work still to do.
As a candidate for Holy Orders I find myself in situations where I can talk about death in the context of faith. Faith transforms our view of death, from a final act to the passing into a new season. But anyone of faith has the same Good News. The pain and horror of Christ’s death on the cross is followed by the joy, hope and reality of the resurrection. We must never be scared or ashamed to talk about death in the context of our faith. Doing so, means that we can openly talk about death and the practical earthly realities that we need to talk about with loved ones and caregivers. Then in grief at the death of others, we realize that we are never alone for in faith Jesus holds open a 24/7 grief group – we just have to rest on our faith to enter in.
St. Paul’s Senior Services has a complete range of facilities for seniors from Residential Living (at the Manor) through Assisted Living (at the Villas) to specialized memory care (at the Memory Care Center) and a lot more in between. My mentor and supervisor for this summer, Fr. Leigh Jacobsen, one of the chaplains at St. Paul’s, recommended a book Creating Moments of Joy by Jolene Brackey as an introduction to working with residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. I did not have a chance to read any of it before my first visit to the memory care center. Pam and I arrived at the center and saw that our names were on the daily activities list as Reflections with Pam and Richard. Taken a little back by this but eager and willing to do whatever was requested of us we asked the staff what was expected of us. We were told to go into the dining room which also doubles as the activity room and just sit and talk with any of the residents. So off we went.
All of the residents at the center have some memory issues but there is a wide range of functionality from resident to resident. With some residents I struggled to find words when the response back was confusion and at times fear. With other residents I could hold a conversation to some extent. One resident, Mary (that is not her real name) seemed to be having a good day and was quite coherent and we chatted about her sons and how she was going out to dinner with them the next day. Then, all of a sudden she looked out of the window and seemed to be focusing on some buildings across the street. “Do you see my husband over there?” she asked. “I don’t I’m afraid where is he meant to be?” I replied having no idea why her husband would be outside waiting for her. “He should be on the steps over there with his mates, you know he is always trying to organize a game of something, can’t you see him?” I couldn’t and I suspected that the husband was not real, maybe a memory but not in the present. I had no idea how to respond. It was clear that if I told her the truth she would get upset but it felt wrong to lie to her and play along with her fantasy.
When I got home that night I started to read the book that had been recommended and I couldn’t put it down. The book is split into small sections, each with little suggestions on activities and responses appropriate for interacting with people experiencing loss of memory function. A central theme of the book is that we must accept when the memory has gone and meet the person where they are. In that moment and in that location we try to create a moment of joy. Not for us, but for them.
In the case of Mary, her memory is now somewhere to a point earlier in her life. Maybe she remembers looking out of the kitchen window and seeing her husband out with his mates on the street at night. There is no harm in creating a moment of joy back at a time that for the rest of us was long ago but for Mary was now.
The next time I was at the center, Mary was all dressed up and was indeed waiting for her son to take her out. As I sat with her (she was ready three hours early and had little concept of time) she again asked me about her husband. “Yes, I think he is over there, I saw him a few minutes ago heading over to Balboa park with a bunch of guys and a football” Mary’s eyes lit up in a moment of joy. “Oh good, now I know he won’t get into too much trouble whilst I go for dinner”.
Both Pam and I have become regular visitors with Mary. I know that she loves to cook pork chops and she promises me that next time I come she will cook them for me. The knowledge of the happiness of her planning the meal is a delicious moment of joy.