Suncoast Hospice Social Worker Dawn Melvin, LCSW

Suncoast Hospice Social Worker Dawn Melvin, LCSW

Grieving the deaths of the people we love can grip and shake our core and well-being. When we confront our losses, get support and engage in healthy activities, we can find new meaning and purpose. We can transform our lives.

Internalizing Grief

Dawn Melvin, LCSW is a north county Suncoast Hospice social worker who has counseled bereaved families for the past 11 years. She previously worked for two other hospices doing social work with patients and bereavement counseling. It’s common to internalize grief, she says.

“Many people tend to hold it inside. They tend not to talk about it or express it very much.”

Being around others can become difficult for the grieving. “Oftentimes friends want to provide support by getting them out and keeping them busy, but sometimes grieving people can’t do a lot and need to not be on the go as much. There can be a sense of chaos, especially when there’s the death of a spouse. A surviving spouse may feel like his or her remaining self and whole world has changed. There’s a sense of disorder and lost feeling,” Dawn said.

Signs of Grief

When grieving and mourning a death, people may experience a wide range of emotions and behaviors across time. “There’s a whole scope of feelings that people have following a death. There may be sadness, guilt, anger, reconciliation, trouble sleeping, loss or change of appetite, no desire to cook, clean or be around lots of people, low energy, fatigue and confusion.”

Some people may not even realize that it’s grief. “Lots of times people don’t even acknowledge that they’re living with grief. There’s like a brain fog with trouble concentrating and other behaviors that are totally foreign to them. They say they’ve never been like this and don’t recognize that this is how their bodies and minds are responding to their losses,” she said.

Continuing Bonds & Redesigning Life

ThinkstockPhotos-98198393In the journey of healing, people must face their grief, find ways to stay connected to their loved ones and make a new life for themselves. “Grief is often very fluid. It’s huge for people to come to grips that their loved ones are no longer in their lives. They must lean into it, as uncomfortable as it is, rather than avoid it. They need to work through it and then gradually begin designing their life now.”

There’s a continuing connection with the relationships that were shared, explains Dawn. “Our loved ones can continue to influence our lives even though they aren’t here any longer. We can help folks understand how their loved ones are a big part of who they are and still can be in their lives but in a different way. This can be very healing.”

Engaging in new activities and staying social can help with healing. “Some may discover new skills or abilities or change career paths. We encourage people to find a social support network, whether that’s friendships, faith communities or volunteering with organizations like Suncoast Hospice. Volunteering can be such a great avenue that gives people a focus, connects them to others and builds a sense of purpose and meaning. This transition of deciding to carry on and really live is not something that develops right away; it usually happens around the one-year point.

Staying physically active and participating in relaxing activities also can be helpful. “One primary activity that supports people in their grief is some form of exercise. It helps with the brain function, increases oxygen and blood flow, and is a mood elevator. Walking, riding a bike, swimming, yoga and Tai Chi are all good, especially because they focus on breathing and are reflective. Reading, listening to soothing music and journaling also are good to do. I’m a big advocate of writing. People don’t believe it but they really can discover more when they think and write about their feelings,” Dawn said.

Grief with Children and Adults

There are some similarities and differences with children and adults who are grieving. “One of the same challenges children and adults face is being able to concentrate. They might daydream more. When children experience a death, however, they have to sit in school and pay attention and it can become challenging to get through their days. While adults typically have a little more flexibility in their daily routines to take care of themselves,” she said.

ThinkstockPhotos-482423868She added that both children and adults can benefit from more playing. “One of the great things about children is they often work through their grief by playing. Children deal with their losses in smaller doses and their playing is so therapeutic. I think adults need to play more in order to promote their healing, such as kayaking, walking or other activities.

Some unique behaviors children might exhibit include being more irritable, angry and clingy, as they fear another loss, says Dawn. “Families should provide reassurance, nurturing and comfort to their children as well as keep them informed and answer their questions. Children shouldn’t totally be shielded from being around someone who’s seriously ill or dying. They should be given a choice if they want to be part of what’s going on. Children can be great blessings and very healing for grieving adults because they’re very connected with the present and the living.”

Rewarding Work

There’s no timetable for grief as it can affect us throughout our lives. Dawn finds it ever so rewarding to help people cope and live again.

“Our culture tends to think you need to get over it and move on. We don’t really allow grieving people the time they need to grieve. There’s no speed track if you want to be a healthier, grounded person,” Dawn said.

She added, “We get to meet such awesome people. It’s very restorative. The beautiful reward is to work with them when they’re feeling so devastated and over time see them transform. I think our job as bereavement counselors is not to do the work for people. The majority of healing is what happens outside out of our counseling sessions. Our role is to walk alongside and encourage them and to hold on to that hope. Grief isn’t something you get over, rather you begin to integrate it into your life and develop to living, not just existing.”

In need of grief support? Learn more about our Empath Health community counseling and/or join our upcoming Suncoast Hospice Sunset Stroll for remembrance, bereavement support and other special activities.