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. 

The sessions

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. In the four sessions he introduced five ways to working mindfully with loss:

  1. Understand the value of exploring our feelings on loss

Loss is something that everyone experiences and it is an inherent part of life. 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. 

  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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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)

  1. 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. 

For a more detailed explanation of these five approaches please see our blog XXX

The impact of the sessions

The sessions were deeply moving for all involved, with 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.

Webinar on Loss and Grief as Initiation

Loss and the natural grief that accompanies it can be one of life’s primary transformational experiences.  In this session, Roy Remer explores how the pain and poignancy of loss can also teach us lessons which may be of benefit to others in our community. The session includes short meditations, opportunities for inner reflection, and guided exercises. 

This session was run on May 23, 2020, as part of Reimagine: Life, Loss, & Love, a Worldwide Virtual Festival on embracing life, facing death, and loving fully, during COVID-19.

A Line of Disappearances: Grief and Helplessness During Shelter in Place

By Alistair Shanks

We are living in a time of disappearances. For the most part, we have been stripped of our distractions, our busyness, our schedules, and plans as we shelter in place. We are being forced to reorder our activities, our needs, our lives.

We are in a state of continual waiting,  a perpetual state of uncertainty. Like a dream, we are at the mercy of an alien, inimical force, invisible and unpredictable. The world has come to a standstill. Construction sites are silent, cranes still, businesses dark, the streets empty.

We are grieving the loss of normalcy, a sense of safety and order; everything has been upended. Nothing is normal. Leaving home feels risky, a trip to the grocery store dangerous. People have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods. People are dying alone in isolated units surrounded not by family and loved ones but by medical teams clad in protective gear.

While also grieving the loss of a sense of connection to others — friends, families, our broader social networks, work colleagues — new opportunities arise to connect in different ways, to offer small kindnesses. There are the friendly smiles and knowing nods as I pass masked people on the street, the greetings of strangers who would normally go by unnoticed. A woman offers a bottle of hand sanitizer to a homeless man outside a Safeway. Many people recognize that we are in this together, that we are all struggling to adjust to this new normal.

Our separation has only made more obvious our dependence on one another, our interconnection. We breathe the same air, share the same sidewalks and streets, depend on invisible supply chains to provide our food, our medications, our consumer goods. We are interdependent in every way, a fact that is easily lost in the daily tumult of overbooked lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, the cycles of life go on unperturbed. It is still spring and trees and flowers continue to bloom, only to disappear in their own time. The days become longer. In the absence of human activity, nature offers signs of reasserting itself: wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, mountain goats taking over a town in Wales, whales in Mediterranean shipping lanes, baby turtles in Brazil surviving in higher numbers due to deserted beaches.

And there is the fear, the vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, for once unable to distance ourselves from the world’s tragedies. It is no longer just an image of suffering on our TV screen. It is here and we are not in control, our lives moving in an arc out to the horizon, a line of disappearances. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I often point out to our volunteers that a lot of what we do as we sit with those suffering near the end of life is to also sit with our own sense of helplessness. We are simply witnesses to the pain and struggles of our fellow human beings. Our volunteers learn to be with discomfort, with uncertainty, helplessness, the unknown. In many cases, it is all we can do and it is no small thing. I have seen the impact of a single steady, mindful presence transform a room.

What can we do with our helplessness? In this time of upheaval, we have been shorn of our assumptions, our certainties. In our helplessness the only sane, rational response, as ever, is love. Maybe our task is, as the poet David Whyte writes, “To love and to witness love in the face of possible loss, and to find the mystery of love’s promise in the shadow of that loss.”

We all need self-care in times like this. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers are trained to practice self-compassion, to acknowledge doubts and difficulties, and hold them with tenderness and care. As Jack Kornfield has said, “In this moment we can sit quietly, take a deep breath, and acknowledge our fear and apprehension, our uncertainty and helplessness…and hold all these feelings with a compassionate heart.”

We can embrace our interdependence. We can turn to the person next to us and ask, “What is your experience? What is it like for you? How are you doing?”

And listen.
Listen deeply.