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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

added 4/03/06

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.

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“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.

grief/loss group 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
When a loved one dies, feelings of grief are normal and necessary. But when grief affects day-to-day functioning for a long period, it may be a sign of depression or unhealthy grieving. Here are some signs of healthy grief:

  • Admitting the reality of the loss. Denial is normal for a short time, but you must not continue to deny the loss.
  • Venting the grief you feel. Don’t feel guilty for showing your emotions.
  • Not taking the blame. It’s natural to wonder if you could have prevented your loved one’s death, but be realistic when coming to conclusions.
  • Recognizing the need for time to heal. Don’t rush your grieving. Give yourself time to cope with your loss.

Tips to handle grief
There is no one way to get through grief. Here are some things that may help:

  • Understand that feelings of grief will ease as time passes.
  • Let others help you.
  • Maintain a routine pattern for eating, waking and going to sleep.
  • Share the burden. Talk to people about what you are experiencing.
  • If necessary, seek professional advice for more reassurance.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Avoid taking medications unless prescribed by your physician. Many substances are addictive and can delay the necessary grieving process. Feelings of grief must be felt in order to cope successfully with the loss.

Celebrating your loved one
Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are often difficult times for people who have lost a loved one. Here are some tips to help celebrate while remembering and honoring a loved one who has passed away:

  • Create a place to remember your loved one. You can include photos, quotations, special memories and pictures or other mementos.
  • Toast your loved one in honor and in memory before an event.
  • Light a special candle in memory of your loved one.
  • Make a quilt, or have one made, with swatches from special fabrics that remind you of your family member.
  • Make a donation in your loved one’s name.
  • Plant a favorite perennial in the garden or yard. Remember your loved one as it blooms every year.

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:

  • “I am so very sorry you have lost (person’s name).”
  • “Things must be very difficult for you.”
  • “She was very special.”
  • “He often said how proud he was of you.”
  • “Your mother often told me how much she loved you.”

Also keep in mind that certain phrases can seem insensitive. Try to avoid these phrases:

  • “It was probably for the best.”
  • “You will feel better in time.”
  • “He lived __ years and had a very good life.”
  • “Surely you should be over it by now.”
  • “She is in a better place.”
  • “You will feel better once you get back to a normal routine.”

Written by Nicole Fawcett

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This article is from a publication now a part of the Cancer Center's News Archive. It is listed here for historical purposes only.

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