Every time a long-term resident dies, a small group of staff at Winnipeg's Riverview Health Centre gather in the newly vacated room to talk about the dearly departed.
Those few moments of remembering, followed by prayers and a blessing of the room, help staff members honour their relationship with the former resident of the facility's personal care home before a new person moves in, says Riverview's spiritual care co-ordinator.
"When a person has been in a bed for three years and sat in that (same) chair in the dining room, there can be resentment by the staff of the new person," Tim Frymire says of why the short ceremony was instituted. "It helps clean off some of the energies and memories of the room."
That small ritual is one way caregivers -- both medical and spiritual -- can deal with grief and loss in a safe, and even responsible way, suggests a Victoria-based clinical psychologist whose practice deals exclusively with trauma, grief and loss.
"Rituals are (about) making meaning, it's honouring a life, just showing as human beings that we continue to care," explains Nancy Reeves, the author of A Path Through Loss.
Reeves visits Winnipeg next week to speak to spiritual care providers, health-care professionals and hospice and palliative care volunteers in an all-day workshop sponsored by the Canadian Association for Pastoral Practice and Education.
Not only does the room blessing acknowledge the feelings and grief of staff when a resident dies, it also demonstrates the value of the deceased to others living there, says Reeves.
"What the other residents say is see how much they care and (we're) not just another body" to them, says Reeves about the power of using a ritual to acknowledge a death.
Her research shows that not acknowledging the frequent losses that might happen at a workplace such as a hospital, palliative care unit, or long-term care facility can lead to post-traumatic stress for professionals and volunteers who provide care and support.
"You can't catch depression from someone who is depressed, but you can develop post-traumatic stress disorder if you're working a lot with people who are going through traumatic experiences," says Reeves.
Frymire says rituals at Riverview have developed to counteract the constant demand of caring for those those struggling with bad news, illness, or death
"We try to facilitate as much as possible for staff to be part of rituals of loss. If we don't do that, grief will build up and become toxic and affect their job performance."
In addition to room blessings, Frymire says staff in the hospital or palliative care unit have regular death reviews, where they share details about the death that occurred, who was present and feelings and memories of the patient.
"It's a safe place where you can process your feelings about the person who died," he says. "That's important for people who deal with chronic illness. That's important to (their) spiritual care."
Reeves says it is crucial caregivers, both medical and spiritual, look after their own emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health. She says that could include regular exercise, participating in a hobby, a small luxury like a bubble bath or dessert, or some sort of spiritual discipline.
After two decades of working in spiritual care and training potential chaplains, Frymire understands the only way he will be helpful to sick, dying or grieving people he encounters in his work is to take time for himself regularly. He begins each day with 20 minutes of quiet prayer, and encourages his staff and students to include some sort of spiritual discipline in their lives.
"You need a grounded prayer life," Frymire says of how he deals with a constant caseload of trauma and grief.
"You need a spiritual life that grounds you... something that connects you to your Creator."
The benefits of ritual
Whether small or large, religious or not, participating in a ritual following a loss or death is important to grieving, says Nancy Reeves in her book A Path Through Grief and Loss, published by Northstone Books in 2007. She says rituals can:
Legitimize grief and acknowledge other ways of grieving
Honour the person lost
Provide stability and structure during a chaotic time
Offer a safe place to express emotion
Provide a community of support