Coping With Grief and Loss When a Loved One Is in Hospice


Entry into hospice is a family event. If you’re helping a loved one to make the transition, you may be experiencing a host of overwhelming emotions that range from sadness to anger. This is very typical and expected. If your family is among the more than 1.4 million families that help a loved one transition into hospice care each year, it’s essential to have tools for coping with the feelings of grief and loss you’re experiencing. 

While hospice is a unique situation for families, many of the techniques that are effective for coping with grief and loss from any cause can help you to find peace over what can be an agonizing decision that isn’t necessarily something we have full control over. 

Take a look at what grief can look like, what to expect as you go through the grieving process and tips for healing.

Understanding Grief: What Are Some Common Emotions After a Loved One Enters Hospice?

When a loved one transitions to hospice, we can feel a wide range of emotions. While some emotions may seem predictable, others can catch us by surprise. Here’s a look at some feelings and emotions that you may be experiencing as part of the grieving process caused by this significant life change:

  • Shock and disbelief over the situation.
  • Anger over the fact that there wasn’t more you could do.
  • Frustration from not being able to make sense of “why” this is happening.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • Guilt that you were unable to do more.
  • Anxiety and fear as you begin to consider your own mortality and vulnerability.
  • Worry and fear over how you will cope going forward as a loved one’s condition worsens.
  • Anxiety over changes and uncertainties that may come.
  • Grief over the loss of the way life “used to be.”
  • Regret over how you’ve handled things with this loved one in the past.
  • A loss of self stemming from not knowing your purpose now that you are no longer the primary caregiver of a loved one.
  • Feelings of isolation because nobody can understand how you feel.
  • An attitude of denial over the fact that your loved one is no longer home.
  • Persistent physical symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, trouble sleeping, nausea, loss of appetite, increased appetite, weight loss and weight gain.

In many cases, your grieving process will very closely follow the Kübler-Ross five stage of grief that covers anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, this is just a general guideline that captures the typical grieving process. It is not necessary to go through each of these phases to heal. 

It’s important to know that there’s no wrong way to feel as you grieve when a loved one enters hospice care. Feeling “nothing” isn’t a sign that you are an uncaring person. This can be the way you happen to process emotions. The grieving process can both begin and progress differently for everyone. There is sometimes tension between family members during the grieving process because everyone is going through the stages of grief based on their personalities and experiences. 

As you permit yourself to grieve, allow those around you to grieve in their own ways. A person who has reached the “acceptance” phase of grief may look like they have “given up” on trying to fix the situation to another person who is still in the denial or bargaining phases. 

Some Misconceptions About Grief

As you wade through the uncharted waters of grieving while a loved one enters hospice, it’s essential to be aware of common misconceptions about grief. People who are trying their best to be “helpful” will often repeat these misconceptions in an attempt to help grieving people “get over” their pain. However, these misconceptions can be harmful because they prevent grievers from going through the full range of emotions necessary to heal. 

Ignoring Grief Will Help It Go Away 

The most common misconception about grief is that the pain of loss will go away if we ignore it. Staying busy and distracted isn’t a replacement for grieving. Many people find that the grief is much stronger once it “catches up with them” after attempts to ignore it. Similarly, trying to be “strong” instead of acknowledging the loss plays into the myth that grieving is a sign of weakness. 

Being “strong” for your loved one in hospice doesn’t mean ignoring what you’re feeling! It’s beneficial and necessary to allow those close to you to see that you’re struggling to cope in the face of this significant life change. 

There Is a Timeline for Grieving  

Another unhelpful myth about grief is that there’s a “timetable” for grieving. Many people believe that grieving should only last for three months, six months, a year or some other arbitrary amount of time. In reality, the grieving process will play out for however long is necessary for you to reach healing. Of course, some people find it helpful to talk with a professional if they feel stuck in grief.

Crying Is Required 

One of the most frequently repeated myths about grieving is that we’re only grieving if we’re crying. A tearless grieving period is a very real thing. There’s no reason to assume that you aren’t “properly” grieving if you haven’t cried during the process of helping a loved one transition into hospice. 

The Pain Must Be Gone for Healing to Occur 

Lastly, many people incorrectly believe the myth that you have only reached full healing after grief if you have “forgotten” the pain. The truth is that healing from grief is a process of accepting the loss. It never requires us to forget about the pain we’ve experienced. The pain can sometimes show up years later, and that is okay. It is just part of the healing process. 

Moving Forward When Grief Becomes Heavy: Ways to Cope With Grief and Loss 

Knowing what grief looks like isn’t necessarily enough to move through the grieving process more easily. Many people find that getting through grief takes work. In many cases, this means seeking out support and positive activities that allow us to work through grief using healthy coping strategies. While the goal isn’t to simply keep busy to avoid grieving, being active can help us to process our emotions as we channel them into healthy outlets. 

Take a look at some ways to cope with the grief and loss that occurs when a loved one is in hospice. 

Avoid the Temptation to Engage in Isolating Behaviors

When grieving, there is a temptation to isolate. Make an effort to stay connected to friends and family. It’s okay to ask people around you to “check-in” on you. While this may make you feel like you’re bothering people, the reality is that your loved ones will be flattered to know that you trust them with this very delicate and important responsibility. 

Join a Support Group

There are many grief support groups that meet in towns and cities around the country. Specific support groups exist to help people who are coping with the pain of having sick loved ones. If you’re unable to attend in-person meetings, you can also find grief support groups online. Many people don’t realize the positive impact that being with a community of people who are going through the same thing can have until they attend a meeting. 

Focus on Self-Care

Many people who are grieving over a loved one entering hospice feel selfish for doing anything that resembles taking care of themselves. As a result, many begin to neglect their own health and wellness. It’s so important to focus on self-care when working through grieving. This can look different for everyone. However, creating space to do things you like, start a new hobby, try new workouts, take a weekend trip or focus on healthy eating is very important for working through grief. 

Avoid the Temptation to Punish Yourself

Many people feel like the only way they can “do something” with their grief is to put all of the blame and bad feelings on their own shoulders. As a result, they may engage in self-neglecting or self-sabotaging behaviors. This can be as subtle as failing to eat properly, exercise or shower. Others may give up things they love because they don’t feel that they deserve to enjoy anything. This can lead to complicated grief, which can cause the emotional pain of grief to get worse over time instead of better. 

Seek Professional Help If Grief Is Overwhelming

While there’s no timetable for grieving, you may find that you can’t seem to progress past strong feelings of anger, anxiety or hopelessness. This may mean that it’s time to speak with a therapist or grief counselor. Grief professionals have very specialized techniques and tools for helping people to work through their grief when other things aren’t making a difference. 

Being Real About Grief When a Loved One Enters Hospice

If you’re facing the reality of a loved one entering hospice care at home, it’s essential to understand that this is something that impacts everyone in your family. It’s very easy to stuff one’s own emotions down out of a desire to focus on the needs of a loved one who is in a declining state of health. However, the reality is that failing to honor your grieving process won’t do anything to make the situation better for your loved one. In some cases, the only thing we can do is to rest in the peace of mind of knowing that our loved ones are in the best possible hands for enjoying comfort and quality of life.

References: 

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/beyond-the-five-stages-of-grief 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1112778/
Author: Frank Davis

Frank Davis has worked as a registered nurse for home health care and hospice agencies for over 10 years. He has the skills to deliver quality work and provide you with insights on the medical industry.

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