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What should we say?
Mar 13, 1997

What should nurses say to AIDS patients and their loved ones to assist in coping and moving through the grief process? What support do they want or expect from healthcare professionals? I really want to help but am not sure of the right things to offer or say.

Response from Rev. Pieters

Thanks for caring enough to ask! You might begin by being honest with your patients and their loved ones about not knowing quite what to say. That kind of honesty can help break the ice for both you and the ones you're trying to help. A sincere expression such as, "I'm so sorry for your loss" can help us feel you care. You might follow up with "If there's anything I can do..." if you're willing to extend yourself beyond your professional duties. Sometimes it helps simply to offer a sympathetic ear as they relate stories about the person they are mourning. You might invite these stories by stating, "Tell me some stories that would help me know your loved one better," or "How did you two first meet?" Getting a person in grief to tell stories about their loved one is an excellent way to facilitate the grieving process. Don't try to rescue a person from their grief. Recognize that the only way to resolve grief is to go through it. Affirm a person who is actively grieving by saying, "Yes, you've every right to feel this pain." Give people in grief hope. It can seem like a bottomless pit of sadness and anger. When the timing is right, you can tell them that no one can take away the love and experiences they've shared with the deceased. You can remind and assure them that even though the grief is all-consuming now, life will go on. People in grief often want to know how long the pain will continue. That is very individual, and it is helpful for you to teach that there is no expected timeline. Grief can last the rest of that person's lifetime. But it is possible for grief to heal. There comes a time for many people when they can remember the one they've lost without pain, and that is when grief has been successfully resolved. Your question assumes correctly that people with AIDS can experience grief, too. Grief for others who have died from the effects of the same virus can be a heavy load. People living with HIV/AIDS also grieve many other personal losses: I found myself grieving lost opportunities, career goals, relationships, and lifelong dreams. I also mourned my body as I watched the muscles I'd worked so hard to develop quickly waste away. Many people with AIDS mourn the anticipated loss of their own life. Again, be present to us, assure us that our feelings are normal and to be expected, and if you're able, listen to our grief. There is comfort in knowing that our sadness and anger is heard and received by a caring soul. For further information, please read my column, "Hope at the Hospice." I have found that most books by Stephen Levine or Elisabeth Kubler-Ross are extremely helpful on this topic as well.

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