OPINION PIECE in HEALTH24 by LEIGH MEINERT – This grief is not something we will recover from – and that is ok

First published in Health24 on 7th May 2021

This Grief is Not Something We Will Recover From – And That is Ok

By Leigh Meinert, Advocacy Manager for the Hospice Palliative Care Association

Grief is currently inescapable for all of us. More than one year into the global pandemic, we are being fed images of creation pyres on India extending out of car parks and into city streets. Even Harvard Business Review are publishing articles that are ricocheting across the world with titles like, “That discomfort you are feeling is grief”.

Pictured: Cremation pyres in New Delhi, April 30 2021. Image: Shutterstock.

Closer to home, we all know someone who has lost someone dear to them in the past year. Some of us have lost many loved ones and almost all of us are starting to give up on our longing to ‘return to normal’. We are starting to accept that we will never be the same again.

Throughout this pandemic, our traditional notions of, and models for grief and grieving have not been particularly helpful. Loss is typically regarded as a series of stages that we step through and ultimately ‘get over’. We search for a formula that will tell us how long these uncomfortable feelings will last. However, those of us who work in hospices know that grief is far more nuanced than this and we have fresher models and deep experience to share.

When hospices counsel bereaved family and friends, their objective is not to facilitate recovery or a return to normal. Rather the task that faces those of us who are grieving is one of integration of the new normal that has been thrust upon us and ultimately, hopefully, finding or making our own unique meaning from what has happened.

Grief through this lens then becomes a teacher, one we would be wise to apprentice ourselves to as Francis Weller advises us. It is a cyclical, rather than a linear, process that never ends, though the intensity of our emotional state does eventually subside.

Working so closely with death, grief and loss is a deep privilege for those of us in hospices because we learn so much that enhances our daily living.

The first hospice in South Africa opened in 1987 and the 99 members across the country all provide the highest standards of palliative care. Their services are holistic and encompass physical, social and spiritual support for a patient with a life-threatening illness and their families. First and foremost, their focus is on enhancing quality of life, which is why they encourage patients and their families to engage their local hospices at the point of diagnosis and not only at the end when hope is waning. If need be though they are also experts in facilitating a dignified and pain-free death and provide bereavement counselling as well.

For this reason, our message is, “Let us not shy away”. Rather let us stand closer to the heat of those fires, together.

The question then, for all of us outside of a hospice environment is “can we be hospitable towards grief? Can we make space and welcome it?”.  As the Sufi mystic Rumi encourages us to in his poem The Guest House, can we look at the pictures of the cremation pyres and not shrink back?

I believe in the resilience of the human spirit. I believe in the hospice philosophy of dignity in both life and death. We believe that the past year can teach us all to be better. That the close encounters with death can make us all stronger, more empathic and wiser.

  • Leigh Meinert is the Advocacy Manager for the Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA). HPCA are marking Hospice Week (3 – 10 May) with by sharing insights as wisdom from hospice nurses and carers through their Hospices Voices of Love campaign which runs until International Nurses Day on 12 May https://apcc.org.za/hospice-voices-of-love/