Amy Colver, LCSW
Melody Griffith, MSW, LMSW, OSW-C
AOSW Communications Director
Jeanice Hansen, LCSW, OSW-C
To submit a story or information for inclusion in a future issue of AOSW Newsletter, contact Amy Colver or Melody Griffith on the list above.
Reflections on Oncology Social Work: Honoring the Grief in Our Work
This past February I had an opportunity to go on a medical mission trip for the 10th time to the same village in Haiti called Terre Blanche. This time, like many others, I walked on the road that the people from all over the village walk each day to get water, go to the market, etc.
I was reflecting on the cemetery (pictured here) and became aware that it had been a while since I had walked that close to any cemetery. As I passed it each day, I wondered about being in that proximity to everyone I have ever known who had died. Would that change the way I honor them, would it change their influence on my day to day or would it have any impact at all?
I have worked in the oncology clinical setting for over 20 years, so to say that I think about death sometimes—well, that’s an understatement. When I work with those who are dying, I am constantly reminded of peoples’ desire to create meaning out of their lives and out of their suffering.
When reflecting on this topic, I couldn’t help but think of two families I have been working with this week here in Haiti, and their impact on me and the team. One patient was an older man who ended up dying this week from the treatment to cure his cancer—not from the cancer, but from the treatment. The second patient is a young woman who is afraid to go on hospice because she doesn’t want her child to think she has given up being with them. What a sacred and powerful role we have in working with these families and the caregivers who have to deliver the news that the treatment isn’t working and that, basically, life is not an option!
My colleagues have been in the place to sit with the most vulnerable, scared people and work with them to create a new goal of what the next best thing might bring. I have been thinking of the impact that someone’s treatment killed them this week, not the disease, and what that means to the doctor who prescribed it. It is so hard for them, and how grief impacts the team, and how we want to support them. I think about the younger oncologist who cared for the young mother who is basically the same age as the patient, and doesn’t want to leave her kids—and the oncologist has kids the same age.
- So how do we honor the deaths and the lives?
- How do we honor those that care for these souls?
- How do we care for our souls?
- Do we pause when we see a site that reminds us of those moments?
- How can we honor this space and move forth with the care of the next family?
For me, I hurt most when my colleagues are suffering the losses of their patients. I am sometimes overcome with how weird my relationships are, how some of my best friends and I have shared more deaths than happy hours..
I think in a way, for me, the hospital becomes my cemetery. I know it's not everyone I’ve ever known, but I walk through the halls with more presence as I am mindful of the lives that have allowed me to be a part of their journey. I am more connected to the patients, Providence and my community of colleagues, and they have become part of the story I share with others and part of my experience that makes me who I am.