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U-M CCC - Progress Newsletter Summer 2003 Online

From Loss to Healing

Loss is an inevitable part of life. Whether confronting the loss of a job, a pet or ultimately a loved one, finding the strength to cope and accessing the tools available to work through the bereavement process can be an overwhelming journey. Experts agree, it's a voyage best taken in the company of a caring guide, with communication illuminating each step.

The U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center's Grief and Loss Program was created to assist families in dealing with the myriad of emotions and issues associated with the death of a patient. According to program coordinator Sue Wintermeyer-Pingel M.S., A.P.R.N., B.C., "The goal is to provide access to needed grief support for families who have lost someone to cancer who was treated at the Cancer Center." Currently, that care begins soon after the time of death, when the family receives a personalized correspondence from the patient's medical team. Created especially for the Cancer Center by Tennessee watercolor artist Marso, sympathy cards bearing unique hand-painted flowers are sent from one or more members of the cancer care team. Feedback from families indicates that these cards have been important in these difficult early days of bereavement.

A packet is also mailed to families from the Grief and Loss program staff, containing a personalized letter and a booklet compiled by Wintermeyer-Pingel and others titled "Coping Through Transitions -- A Guide for the Bereaved Family," covering a variety of aspects of the grieving process and introducing families to the resources available to them through the Cancer Center as well as the community at large. It is by beginning this dialogue that families can reconnect with the Grief and Loss staff to take advantage of support groups and other programs offered to help them move forward.

Through group support offered at the Cancer Center, individuals who have lost loved ones to cancer can meet to share emotions and exchange ideas. Comprised of several sessions meeting once weekly or once monthly, groups are guided by both an advanced practice nurse and a social worker, and average 10-15 participants. Although sessions may feature a specific topic for discussion, the goal is to allow time for all participants to share.

"The grief support group is a vital piece of the healing process," commented bereaved parents after attending a recent group. "We especially feel very strongly about having well-trained professional staff guiding us and wouldn't think of going anywhere else. During a time of deep emotion those in grief need sound advice and assistance. Thank you for sharing your expertise."

Beyond the family, the death of a cancer patient has a significant impact on a population that is often overlooked. Doctors, nurses, clerical and support teams experience the death of patients in ways they do not always feel comfortable discussing. Over time, the cumulative result of grieving the loss of patients can affect the entire health care team. That's why the mission and services of the Grief and Loss program extend to the Cancer Center staff. The program provides a variety of innovative activities in safe, comfortable group settings to help facilitate the grieving and healing process for staff associated with the Cancer Center.

Staff Grief and Loss Rounds have been initiated monthly to provide a forum for sharing on the topic of loss. Guided by many of the same professionals who assist with the support groups formed for bereaved individuals who have lost loved ones to cancer, rounds alternate between open discussions and specific topics, which have recently featured the use of art and music therapy.

butterfly on a box

In July 2002, both to acknowledge staff contributions to cancer care and to celebrate life, the Grief and Loss program staff hosted Sheltering Wings, a butterfly release for the Cancer Center staff. A quantity of live butterflies, shipped in a cooled container from a southern climate, remain in a dormant state until they are released into a temperate climate.

Approximately 40 staff members gathered in the courtyard for lunch and the release, the first of what is hoped will be an annual ceremony. Each staff member received a Crabtree & Evelyn gift box donated by Glaxo Smith Kline filled with a candle, soap and a stress reduction tape. A special poem was read, and as a violinist played, the monarch butterflies were released.

Jane Deering, M.S.W., Clinical Oncology Social Worker, captured both the tone of the event and the mission of the Grief and Loss Program in her comments to those in attendance: "The symbolism of the butterflies lies in the transformation. I think all of us are somehow transformed by this work we do. The fact that so many of you attend Grief and Loss Rounds and are so genuinely open and sharing of your stories, your feelings and your transformations speaks to how you value and honor our patients and their families. I want to thank you for your courage."


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