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When a loved one dies from cancer: Helping to lift the "veil of sadness"
A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.
U-M program offers family members help, support after loved one dies
Ann Arbor, MI. -- For 37 years, George Spilson was there to hold his wife Bess’s hand. When he died, Bess found she had no one to hold onto.
“My husband passed away on Jan. 25, 2005, and you know, the strangest thing is that you see it coming, but you don’t want to look that way. It was difficult to watch, even though he went peacefully,” says Bess Spilson, 60. “At first, you’re numb and you have a certain sense of fear, because everything you’ve done, you’ve always done together.”
The hand that reached out to Bess was from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, through a unique program to support family members after a loved one dies of cancer.
After George Spilson died from osteosarcoma, a type of cancer in the bone, Bess would find herself overcome with what she calls a “veil of sadness.” She would find herself crying without warning in the middle of the day or as she drove down the road.
“I wanted to be able to smile and laugh again and think of all the wonderful things about my husband. I didn’t want to dwell on those last days. I wanted to remember a lot of the good things about my husband and especially the fact that all his hopes and dreams came true for him,” Bess says.
When a person is diagnosed with cancer, it affects the whole family – children, spouses, parents, and even family friends and co-workers. As someone goes through end-of-life care, the family’s world may revolve around the hospital. After that person dies, the family’s ties with the doctors, nurses and hospital staff are typically severed – after all, the family is not the patient.
“Families have told us that they feel abandoned, that there’s not anyone that follows up or calls them. So that’s where we’ve really tried to put our focus, to say, ‘Here are our resources for you, we’re available.’ When a family member dies, the family has to continue to go on. By pulling in the whole family and following up with them, it lets them know that they do matter and that they are all a part of who we treat,” says Susan Wintermeyer-Pingel, grief and loss program coordinator at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The process starts with a contact to families after their loved one dies. Individuals receive resources and an invitation to attend group support programs for people who have lost someone to cancer. Social workers, nurses and psychiatrists are available to help families cope with their grief, either in a group setting or individually. For some, they may be grieving appropriately and not need extra resources. Others welcome the support.
“We can’t oftentimes change the outcome of cancer, but we can help them get through and cope with the whole process,” Wintermeyer-Pingel says.
For Bess Spilman, the support group unearthed the happy memories she had suppressed about her husband while she focused on his last days. And while in many ways it was a difficult process for her, she says it was also cathartic and helped her feel like she was on the right track to handling her grief.
“What I’ve gained is the fact that I’m not alone and that others have gone that same route,” she says. “I think that group gave me encouragement, and actually held my hand to go forward.”
Signs of healthy grief
Tips to handle grief
Celebrating your loved one
What to say (and what not to say)
When someone you know has lost a loved one, it’s often difficult to know what to say. Consider these suggestions:
Also keep in mind that certain phrases can seem insensitive. Try to avoid these phrases:
Written by Nicole Fawcett
This article is from a publication now a part of the Cancer Center's News Archive. It
is listed here for historical purposes only.