Volunteer efforts bring comfort to grieving families

May 27, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees
Members of the Bereavement Outreach team.

“The sadness in her voice was palpable,” said Lisbeth Harcourt, M.S.W., LMSW, recalling a bereavement phone call she had with the wife of a 48-year-old COVID patient who had just died.

Quarantined at home, she was unable to be by his bedside, nor at her brother’s bedside when he had died one week earlier. Her inability to tell her mother, also quarantined, about the family deaths added to her guilt of not being able to personally care for her loved ones at this critical time.   

“She had been the rock for her family her entire life,” Harcourt said, “but she hadn’t shared her feelings of grief with anyone. The more we talked, the more she realized that she needed to focus on herself as well. At the end of the call she told me, ‘Today has been a blessing and you all have been a blessing. Know you have touched people and given them hope. I am so thankful for U-M for putting this team together and helping so many people through this.’” 

The team she speaks of is the Bereavement Outreach team, spearheaded by the Office of Decedent Affairs (ODA). The outreach program provides additional support for family members who may not be able to say goodbye to their loved one in person due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions. In addition, the team consoles family members who cannot participate in funeral rituals, which are restricted by stay at home orders and gathering limitations. 

COVID restrictions have made in-person bereavement support difficult. Care management social workers, spiritual care and/or child life services have utilized virtual support at the time of death to support families when they are unable to come into the hospital. In addition, ODA is unable to assist families with in person viewings and direct releases of decedents to the funeral home from their hospital room. Both procedures have been suspended.  

“All families are receiving at least two phone calls with the new program,” said Harcourt, who partners with Aimee Vantine, program manager of the C&W Bereavement Program, on the initiative. “The feedback we have received from families has been overwhelmingly positive.” 

The first call, within two days after the death, helps family members identify a support system and provides information related to expedited funeral arrangements. The second call, one or two weeks later, assesses coping skills and offers referrals for additional grief support. 

This additional work was more than the ODA could take on so they reached out for volunteers and 18 social workers from across the organization stepped forward.

“I was worried at first about making these calls because I don’t usually do bereavement support work,” said clinical pediatric social worker Kirstin Santa, who volunteered for the program. “The families have said how much they appreciate the follow up and how helpful I was to them.  These comments put me at ease and motivate me to continue this important initiative. This work feels really important given the amount of grief and loss people are experiencing.”

According to Harcourt, it is the restrictions more than the virus that is compounding the grief. “While many of these cases are related to COVID, the vast majority were not. The restrictions, in combination with the isolation we are experiencing through social distancing, put these grievers at risk for complicated prolonged grief.” 

The ODA has worked hard to mitigate these risks by creating best practice guidelines for the inpatient teams as well as clinical guidance for how to facilitate virtual goodbyes.

“I really appreciate that I am able to bear witness to someone’s loss,” said program volunteer Anna Millard, LMSW. “I make these bereavement calls frequently working in the Rogel Cancer Center, and consider it an honor to talk with someone at such a personal time in their life.”

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