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Care Team Bereavement
The death of a service user is never easy on anyone, but it pays to recognise the effects on your staff team and take steps to provide support.
We have become very aware of the impact that death can have on a group of people who share their lives. Our policy alludes to the important aspects of bereavement and provides advice and ideas for helping service users come to terms with their loss. We know that sometimes it is difficult to explain what has happened and even more difficult for them to express how it makes them feel. We take steps to allow them time to grieve in their own way and help them to recover from the shock or sadness.
Life goes on
Of course, nobody underestimates the effect on the care team of a death; we enjoy a very privileged relationship with service users, we are welcomed into their life and become important to them. Of course, we gain valuable friendships in return. Its definitely a two way street, so when they die, we grieve. We grieve appropriately when at work, because we recognise that there are still requirements on us to be strong, consistent and professional. We also recognise the needs of the service go on and that we do not have time to dwell on our sadness when there are other people to support.
Where we work and how we work
The response of each member of staff dealing with a death will be absolutely related to their own personal history, experience, cultural beliefs and personality. There will also be differences in the responses of members of large teams and those of smaller, domiciliary care services. In many ways, the benefit of being part of a large team is the potential to share, confide, mutually group hug and generally seek support from each other. The negative of this can be the vortex of shared grief that can sometimes overwhelm, so it will still need to be managed.
A colleague who works chiefly with small care packages has come to rely on active bereavement management with their teams. In the main, when they lose a resident, it is the end of their work, since the team often provides independent living services to single service users. This not only affects them in terms of the emotional loss, but in the very real risk that they will now be unemployed. Combine this with the lack of opportunity to talk about their feelings, it is a small wonder that many staff find this too much to cope with. Sickness rates are high in these circumstances, with anxiety and depression a feature.
The simple process used by colleagues who work in the hospice sector is to offer staff teams the opportunity to meet and share their memories, feelings and fears about what has happened. A facilitated conversation about what made that person special and how they choose to remember them can generate a very happy and positive mood. Shared good feelings often lead to sadness but this is encouraged as a means to explore the mood of the team and help people understand that they are not alone.
A discussion about the events around the death can help to give perspective and help those who were very much involved the chance to reflect and share their concerns and fears. For those less involved, it will allow them to explore the experience of others and give an opportunity to ask awkward and difficult questions. Whilst this activity is not compulsory, it is strongly encouraged, and those who have used it are positive about its impact.
We should never over-dramatise the impact of a death of a service user, as we can unwittingly cause staff to experience stress and negative feelings where this is not called for. But we do need to recognise the importance of valuing our staff and making sure they are able to deal with the difficult times knowing we are supportive and understanding. The worst thing to do is assume that because they aren't making a fuss, they don't feel. They feel in so many ways and this is the reason we employ them. It’s a fine line between stiff upper lip and hysteria, but use the tools available and you will all benefit.
Ginny Tyler – QCS Expert Learning Disabilities Contributor