Coping with loss, sharing our approach with Curry Senior Center staff
Curry Senior Center is a non-profit in San Francisco dedicated to helping vulnerable, low-income, and homeless seniors through a holistic and integrated care approach. The organization runs a Peer Outreach Program in which Peer Outreach and Drop-in Center Specialists help connect isolated older adults to services and social activities.
Working with a vulnerable older population, the Outreach Specialists often witness their clients experiencing multiple losses, for example, loss of mobility, loss of social connections and loss of their own living spaces as they move to assisted housing. During the pandemic, however, the losses experienced by the staff and clients intensified, with a number of clients passing, and the Curry team also losing a member of staff to COVID-19.
To support their staff with such losses, and to prevent burnout and overwhelm that can accompany such experiences, Curry Senior Center approached Zen Caregiving Project (ZCP) to run two online, interactive sessions on managing loss and grief.
Working with loss and grief is a core part of Zen Caregiving Project’s approach to caregiving. When the organization was first established as Zen Hospice Project over thirty years ago, it served people approaching the end of their lives, and provided hospice care. Offering on-going support for persons at the end of life, the organization advanced a Buddhist-inspired approach to working with loss and grief, allowing individuals to both feel the emotions that loss brings, and also build the capacity to sit with the loss and reduce overwhelm.
The sessions for the Outreach Specialists were based on this approach and were taught by Roy Remer, the organization’s Executive Director. Across the sessions he introduced five ways to working mindfully with loss:
1. Loss is universal
It can be comforting to remember that loss is a natural part of being human. While the particular circumstances of loss may differ from person to person, we all experience loss. It is unavoidable. If nothing else, the shared experience of loss is what reminds us that we are connected to everyone else.
2. Understand the value of exploring our feelings on loss
It is important to be aware of how we respond to our own losses, especially as caregivers. When we don’t work on how to process our own losses, it can be difficult to fully support the person receiving our care. Others’ experience and reactions to loss may be triggering for us, and it is hard to untangle the pain and emotion of their loss from the pain and emotion of our own losses.
3. Introducing mindfulness to work with grief and loss
Often our first response to grief is to deny it or turn away from this. Mindfulness techniques can be used to turn toward grief, allowing us to see what sensations and emotions are felt, and what thoughts we are having. Being with the emotions of grief allows for their processing. We can build our capacity to be with strong emotions and over time the emotions will begin to quiet. The sadness of loss may not go away, however, we may begin to find it is not as disrupting or overwhelming. We begin to integrate the loss into the normal rhythms of our life.
4. Building compassion in the face of frequent loss
Caregivers may confront a lot of barriers to expressing compassion – these barriers can sometimes be exhaustion, hunger or frustration, and sometimes it can feel like what we are doing doesn’t make a difference. A deeper understanding of the dynamics of compassion and the ways it can be used enable us to more readily recognize and overcome barriers when they arise. Practicing compassion means also including oneself. Self-compassion is essential for caregivers to build resilience and avoid burnout: “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” (see our free webinar on compassion for caregivers)
5. Inviting conversations about loss with those we are care for
Conversations with care recipients about loss can feel awkward, but there are ways of approaching these conversations that help the other person open up, and feel supported. It is helpful to remember, in the face of loss we are all equals as no one can avoid personal loss and grief. In this regard, we are all alike. This thought naturally brings feelings of empathy and compassion for the person we care for. It is also helpful to notice if you are attached to a particular outcome for a conversation and perhaps let go, trying to meet others where they are at. Maybe the person you care for isn’t yet ready for a big conversation on loss but providing an opportunity, may support them to get more comfortable with it over time.
The impact of the sessions
The sessions were deeply moving for all involved, with Curry staff sharing and connecting over common experiences and recognizing their own unique relationship with loss. The feedback we received from the session was very positive and it is our hope that the training will continue to support these staff persons in the important work they are doing in the community, as well as in their own personal wellbeing.
We would like to thank the Curry Senior Center for its holistic and compassionate approach to supporting its staff. For any enquiries on running sessions in your organization please contact us via our enquiry form.