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Bereavement calls helping to aid grieving families

Jun. 4, 2020, 9:17 AM


by Jill Clendening

There has been nothing normal about the COVID-19 pandemic, and grieving the loss of a life at a time when families have been unable to gather beside a bedside to say goodbye, or to even hold a traditional funeral, has been one of the worst consequences of this health crisis’s uncharted territory.

Because of this, a group of palliative care physicians, social workers and chaplains at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been making personal phone calls to connect with families who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.

Whether or not the death was related to COVID-19, Medical Center staff realized that when patients died, families were likely struggling with their grief when social distancing limited support and hospital visitor restrictions meant patients might have died without their loved ones present.

The bereavement calls give Medical Center staff an opportunity to tell families directly that their loved ones were valued and to offer additional resources to help them deal with their loss.

“Usually during traumatic times we physically come together and comfort each other,” said Mohana Karlekar, MD, medical director of VUMC’s Palliative Care Unit. “But this is a time when we’ve been told, ‘Yes, this is terrible, but you can’t get near each other, and if you are around someone else, don’t touch, don’t hug, wear a mask and put on gloves. Basically, put a barrier in front of yourself.

“This is a way for us to connect with the families who trusted us to care for their loved ones, and this gives back to us as much as it hopefully does to the people receiving the calls,” Karlekar said.

The group began making the phone calls in April. In some instances, VUMC chaplain Sherry Perry, MDiv, had already connected with families as she worked at the Medical Center’s COVID unit or the families might have already met Palliative Care Unit staff. Other families might not have known a call would be coming. Several attempts were made to reach families, and some family members were understandably not ready to talk.

During the connections made, families are given space to talk about their loved ones, share memories and talk about how they’re coping, said staff chaplain Ian Cullen, MDiv, who leads the initiative. The families are also provided referrals to grief support services through partnerships with local hospice agencies, available to them even if they weren’t previously served by hospice.

“Whether it’s a wake or funeral or just friends and family sitting together and sharing stories, so much of our normal process of grieving is not possible currently,” Cullen said. “People are finding ways to connect and do things differently, but it’s not on a normal scale. When we’re not able to have markers, a funeral or another ritual experience, that allow our bodies and our souls to know that we have grieved, that process can arrest and hold us in really painful places. We want families to know that with all the disconnection right now there still can be moments of connection.”

Karlekar and Cullen said the calls have been remarkably healing for those making the calls. And they’ve received a lot of thank yous for VUMC’s clinical caregivers, Cullen said.

“For many, the calls might be their first opportunity to say thank you,” Cullen said. “One family member said, ‘Losing my father has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through. The care and support of everyone at Vanderbilt has been so amazing. Thank you for calling to check on me. It means so much that you all care.’ Another family member said, ‘Y’all comforted me from the time she got there. Please thank the doctors and nurses for all they did for my mother and me. Y’all did a good job.’”

In addition to Cullen, Karlekar and Perry, others making bereavement calls are staff chaplain Patricia Shropshire, MS, MDiv; and Palliative Care Unit social worker Melinda Bailes, LCSW.

The group hopes there will be a way to continue the bereavement calls after the pandemic ends, perhaps with specially trained volunteers. Other bereavement support efforts are also being planned, such as a memorial service held at the Medical Center.

“We’re in a world where we’re socially distancing, wearing masks, we’re separating, we’re hunkering down. But there are still a lot of ways that you can still create some level of intimacy and connection,” Karlekar said.

“Right now, this is one of those ways. I hope this encourages other people to find ways to connect — that this will spark people’s imaginations. If there was ever a time to become connected, this is it.”

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