May 23, 2023

Arrow’s D&I Speaker Series: A Mental Health Awareness Conversation on Grief with Sandy McGatha and Janet Rose 

Category: D&I Series

Author: Michael Gutgsell

Sandy McGatha, a Clinical Social Worker with Arrow Senior Living, sat down to discuss grief with resident Janet Rose, a retired Home Economics teacher and manager of senior apartments.  

Grief is the emotion, often overwhelming, we experience when we lose someone or something we had a bond with. While most of the conversation referred to the loss of a loved one, grief can also come after the loss of a pet or a job. It can be collective, such as we experienced on 9/11 or the loss of a way of life we experienced during the pandemic. It can be felt physically (a sensation of heaviness) and it can challenge our spirituality or philosophy. Grief has social implications, as well, as we navigate our new place in the world.  

In her 1969 work On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined her theory of the five stages of grief (denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance). Not everyone goes through all five but putting a label on these “stages” is a way to “manage something that feels unmanageable,” as McGatha says. It’s also important to remember that people grieve differently. McGatha has seen families struggle with this, thinking that someone isn’t grieving “enough,” and this means that they didn’t love the person who they lost.  

Studies show that for most people the first year is the hardest as you go through birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. But the grief remains with you always and you must find a new normal. Life will be different without that person. Rose’s advice: Stay busy, keep up with your hobbies (or start a new one), maintain your routine as much as possible. Going out to eat may be something you miss if you used to do this with your spouse, so it can help to find a person or a group to go out with again. McGatha recommends becoming the “legacy teller:” Tell stories of the person who has passed away to your family members who maybe didn’t have the chance to meet them. Joining a support group may also be helpful. 

Complicated grief (defined by the Mayo Clinic as “painful emotions so long lasting and severe that you have trouble recovering from the loss and resuming your own life”) may require the assistance of a professional.  

One thing many people struggle with is what to say to someone who is grieving. Rose recommends something open-ended and supportive, such as: “Let me know if there’s something I can do for you,” or sharing stories of what you liked to do with the person who passed away. She emphasizes it is not helpful for most people to hear things like “It’s God’s plan” or “I know what you’re feeling.” Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is to listen, encourage them to talk, and be there for them. Provide empathy rather than sympathy.  

One thing to remember about grief is that if we haven’t already gone through it, we will. Avoidance (including the use of conscious-altering substances) will only prolong the process. Time does help, as does having people around you who love and listen to you. As McGatha says: “We’re in the land of the living and we are called to live even though it’s hard after we’ve lost somebody. That’s still our journey to continue.” 

To watch the full interview: 

Saint Charles, Missouri-based Arrow Senior Living manages a portfolio of communities that offer varying levels of care, including independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Each and every senior living community supports residents by focusing on dignity, respect, and quality of life. The programs and amenities offered are selected to provide only the highest standard of quality and comfort.

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