The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

May 5, 2012

Sincerity matters: Retiring Hospice social worker shares insight from years of dedicated work

OTTUMWA — Death may be a fact of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to face. Yet more than a thousand families in Wapello and Davis counties have had help dealing with loss from medical social worker Jan Hisel.

This month, Hisel retires after 21 years with “Hospice Serving Davis and Wapello Counties,” an organization where the beds are dedicated to comforting patients in the final days of a terminal illness.

The new social worker, Carol Logan, said Hisel has touched the lives of those left behind, the survivors. Her job, either in group sessions, like support groups, or one-on-one in a counseling session, has been to help families — usually a spouse — through the grieving process.

One of the keys is to have a “safe environment” to share deeply emotional things — without being judged.

“Allow the memories to come ... and the feelings to come,” Hisel said.

It’s likely to be painful. But those feelings can be acknowledged and, at some point, accepted.

“It’s a simple formula, but not easy ... and it should be balanced with moving forward [in your life].”

While there are times an entire family can benefit from counseling about a loved one who has passed, there are subjects a spouse might not be comfortable discussing in front of their children, even adult children. After all, said Hisel, the surviving spouse has lost their best friend, their biggest supporter, and — what offspring rarely think about — their romantic partner.

 So how can we help survivors we care about — and how do we avoid accidentally saying something offensive?

“People don’t necessarily remember what you say but how they feel when they talked to you,” Hisel said.

In her time of grieving after the death of a loved one, a shared memory was nice to hear, she said. An experience a family friend remembered having with her parents or even a story about the loved one.

“When my parents died, people shared stories and memories. That was helpful. And for me, the funnier the story the better. Those stand out.”

Even though it’s rarely helpful to make pronouncements that may be empty, or attempt to present a silver lining when it’s not sincere, said Hisel, it can be different when the mourner knows we mean well.

For example, the sympathy cards with a little something personal written in them tend to mean more than the ones that are simply signed.  

Also, Hisel suggested, when you’re offering “to help if they need anything,” understand that few mourners are going to pick up the phone and say, “I’m sad, come talk to me, then mow my lawn so I don’t have to do it.”

So if you are really willing to help, be specific.

“Could I stop over and shovel your walk when this snow stops?” is better than patting their hand and saying, “Call if you need anything.”

When Hisel herself was grieving a loss, a neighbor used his plow to clear her driveway. He never asked, he just did it when he was clearing snow from his own.

“That meant a lot,” she said.

In fact, any effort can mean something to a grieving person — as long as it is sincere.

“Sincerity. If you want to say or do something, if you’re really sorry for their loss, then really mean it. The other stuff is just drivel,” Hisel said.

Former volunteer Jone Martin has seen hospice from more than one direction. She had become a volunteer under Hisel.

“I instantly liked her. She’s so laid back,” Martin recalled.

Martin and her husband helped with the renovation of the new hospice facility on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. He then spent two weeks in the hospice building he’d helped renovate before he died.

Martin has received counseling from Hisel, and regularly attended support groups. She said Hisel helped her believe she could get through her grief.

“What some people didn’t know was as she [was helping us], she was dealing with the loss of her husband,” said Martin. “I admired her for it. She jumped in the pool with all of us. And I think it may have helped her — helping us.”


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