STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After more than a decade as chaplain for the hospice program at Northwest Colorado Health, Jo Anne Grace understands working through grief knows no set timelines.
Living through the waves of grief from the loss of a loved one is not a step-by-step linear process with an expected end date where individuals can be told, “It’s time to move on,” Grace said.
“The new research shows we move through grief like we shuffle through life. We have to shuffle through those memories that are beatific and those that are horrific,” said Grace, who earned a doctorate in pastoral care and theology. “The people in the grief group finally come to realize that grief is a lifelong journey.”
Grace serves as first-step assistance for people experiencing grief in Routt County after any death. She provides a short intake session to determine the best resources and plan of bereavement care, such as a referral to one of multiple local grief counselors.
As the spiritual care and bereavement coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health Hospice, Grace also oversees two grief support groups, including at 10 a.m. the first and third Mondays in Steamboat Springs and at 4:30 p.m. each Monday in Hayden. Group members can participate in person or via Zoom.
Grief during the COVID-19 pandemic has been even more complicated with interruptions of helpful steps, such as rituals of closure, religious gatherings, hospital visitations and social interactions.
The Rev. Catie Greene at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Steamboat, who lost her 97-year-old grandmother last year, noted that grief is tangible and physical, so the loss of tangible steps and physical rituals, such as large funerals with lots of hugging, has been difficult. Greene advises families to manage traditional expectations and focus on what was truly important in their relationships with the lost loved one. For example, her family celebrated with a small gathering in her grandmother’s backyard with favorite foods and music.
Grace said friends who want to serve a person experiencing grief should understand simply being present and available are most important. She advises friends to stay respectful but to continue contact, including extending invitations, but not to be offended or stay away if the person in grief says no to invites.
“If you don’t know what to say, say nothing, or you can say ‘When you are ready, I’ll be here for you, and I’ll be checking in on you,’” Grace said. “Or, if the person needs to talk about it, let them talk. Mostly, they need to be able to say what’s on their heart without judgment and need to be heard with compassion.”
Grace said asking a grieving person “How are you?” is too superficial and can throw that person into confusion. Her advice is to extend a declarative invitation such as “I’m going to the grocery store; do you need me to pick up anything for you?” or “I’m going for a walk; would you like to join me?”
Other comforting comments might include: “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.” “My favorite memory of your loved one is…” “I am usually up early/late, if you need anything.”
For individuals in grief who receive comments from people who mean well but are unwittingly offensive, Grace counsels people to practice responses such as, “Thank you for your care, but I’m not in a place where I can continue talking about this.”
Greene said friends may inadvertently respond from their own feelings of discomfort because they are trying to process their own sadness. She advised, “Just acknowledge your feelings and do not assume theirs. Do not project your discomfort on the person experiencing grief.”
The strategies of moving through grief are different for everyone and are often based on the level of intimacy the grieving person had with the deceased individual, Grace said. Common reactions during grief are shock and a feeling of being immobilized. People feel lost, alone and isolated.
The chaplain said a person in grief often finds comfort and compassion in unexpected people who have worked through a similar loss.
“People often find the people they expect to be there are not, and people you would not expect all of the sudden show up,” Grace said.
One type of grief called “anticipated grief” can occur on birthdays or special days previously shared with lost loved ones, so counselors recommend planning a remembrance time or volunteer service on those days in honor of the loved one.
Locals organize a variety of events for those in grief, such as the hospice’s Celebration of Light in early December, the pre-holiday annual Blue Christmas through churches and remembrance events on Memorial Day and 9/11.