By Emma Meads

What I Know Now

Seeing a friend pass away is hard; and when you’re only 19, it’s really hard. I knew what I was feeling was grief, but I didn’t know the first thing about grieving. How could I? I had never lost a friend, a peer before. I had no idea how to handle it.

But, for the past 4 years, I’ve been working in the senior living sector across multiple departments and multiple levels of care. Most people don’t understand the close relationships and friendships we as staff form with each other and the residents. It is a uniquely special and private bond. And with death a constant in the background, you learn a lot about grief.

Here are a few things I have learned along the way:

It’s Not One Size Fits All

It’s okay to grieve differently for different people. This was a hard pill for me to swallow. I would leave work devastated about one person’s passing, but clock out able to smile despite losing someone else. I was wracked with guilt. Angry and frustrated since I felt I wasn’t doing enough to honor that person’s life.

As a receptionist, sometimes I was grieving the loss of the relationship with a resident’s family who had stopped by daily. Other times I was sad that I would no longer share the evening ritual with the resident who routinely ventured to the juice machine and offered me a cookie on their way back. In every case, grief is different for different relationships.

Lines Can Blur

Professional and personal lines sometimes would blur. I remember the first time I desperately wanted to hug a family member after her father died. But I didn’t wrap my arms around her. I thought in a professional setting I had to maintain a stoic facade and meagerly offer the typical, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Now I know it’s okay to offer condolences through a patted hand, a hug, some physical touch that is more sincere than any words I could share. 

People are unlikely to understand your grief. When I was trying to express my sadness about the passing of a resident with whom I was particularly close, my contemporary responded, “Well, you work in a senior living facility, so you know people are going to die.” She still thinks that anticipation makes it easier. It doesn’t. Your grief is your grief. Don’t let those who don’t comprehend this diminish or invalidate your experience.

Check in With Your Team

And just because no one talks about it doesn’t mean no one else is experiencing it. Ask the housekeepers, the maintenance workers, the on-call servers. Frontline workers of each department have their own moments of joy and connection with residents. Their grief can be just as significant as that of those who interacted with residents daily.

Lead with Compassion

For those of you who manage or work in a senior living community, here are a few tips I offer for reaching out to grieving employees:

1. Remind coworkers they can come to you for support, but be mindful that they may not reach out.

One particular week we had quite a few residents pass away. When I confided in a manager about the immense sadness I was experiencing, he said, “Emma, you know you can always come to a manager.” In a rational headspace, I would know that.

But I felt vulnerable and, at work, had not seen this type of compassion modeled from a management level. At every monthly staff meeting, you need to reiterate the normalcy of grieving and the resources your staff can turn to. You might feel like a broken record, but it takes repetition for your employees to feel safe and comfortable.

2. If yours is a company that prides itself on compassion, don’t let that compassion stop with the residents.

Treat your employees the same. Working with seniors is not just a clock-in/clock-out job. We carry our workday experiences home with us.

I had a coworker witness a resident fall in the dining room. After hearing that the resident passed away in the hospital, my coworker was distraught and feeling guilty. If only he’d been closer and able to catch the resident, maybe his friend, whom he provided care for, would still be alive. It’s easy to think we might have done just one thing differently and the resident would still be with us. In reality, of course, there was nothing he could do to prevent this.

3. You want your frontline workers grieving.

That is, you want your employees to create such profound relationships with residents — to be so compassionately and emotionally bonded — that they experience a sense of loss similar to losing a grandparent or other loved one. Be there to offer condolences to your employees in the same way you are to residents’ families.

Working with seniors is so rewarding. Promote a work culture that fosters employee-resident connections, but be sure to create a safe space to express grief when someone passes.

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