What unprecedented, large-scale grief events can teach us about patient care.
This was unexpected, to say the least… how does someone prepare for something like this? You hear stories from older relatives talking about the horrors they experienced themselves, but it´s hard to take seriously until you experience it for yourself. Now circumstances are changing on a daily basis, and there is a sense that our very way of life is under siege. We are being bombarded with information on an hourly basis, but what can you believe? Where do you go for the right information? As a result of all of this, you end up spending more time at home, placing additional stress on your relationships with your partner and your family. Communication is frequently breaking down and feelings are getting hurt, and it’s becoming harder to enjoy the things you love most in life. Who knew hearing loss could affect you like this…
Okay let me explain…
See what I did there? You probably thought the above paragraph was about the COVID-19 pandemic (spoiler alert: it could be). But it´s interesting to see the parallels between how your patients first experience hearing loss and how we as a world are being impacted by the pandemic, and it all comes down to how we cope with loss. Whether it’s a loss of independence, a loss of resources, or a loss of abilities, many people deal with loss in similar ways. Therefore, as we navigate this crisis together, what lessons can we learn from the experience that will help us better serve our patients grieving the loss of their hearing?
What is grief?
Grief is a natural and expected response to loss. Often grief is portrayed as a response specific to a traumatic, life-threatening event or death, however grief can result from any form of loss: big, small or even simply a perceived loss. There are a multitude of ways in which grief can manifest emotionally, physically, and socially: difficulty concentrating, withdrawing from social activities, changes in sleeping habits, and a host of others which can be found here. The most important thing to know about grief? It’s different for everybody. While psychology textbooks will talk about various stages of grief, it is important to understand that those serve only as rough generalizations. Everybody handles grief on their own timeline and their own terms. Because this is a blog for hearing care professionals and not a textbook for psychologists, rather than discuss theoretical constructs of grief, let’s talk about the ways you can help someone who is grieving.
How you can help
The best way you can help someone who is grieving is in some ways the most obvious to us as audiologists: listen. Rather than just listen for the sake of listening, practice being a good listener. Actively take an interest in what the person is saying, and show that you are engaged by making eye contact, not interrupting them as they speak, and waiting several seconds once they finish speaking to begin your reply. These are especially important when communicating over telephone or video chat, as not being in the same physical space can make it easier to misunderstand or misinterpret what is being said. This will go a long way in building your relationship with this person as well as help you better understand their needs. To help ensure these conversations do not take over your entire day, work on asking meaningful questions. Listen to what they have said and how they have said it, pause to think what is most important for you to know, and then ask your question. Targeted questions can be a great way to help ensure your conversations stay on track and don’t meander into the weeds.
In addition to practicing good listening, it is equally important to be understanding of your patients unique circumstances. They may not comply with your treatment plan, they might be rude during an appointment, or they might not appear to be listening. There are any number of reasons they could be exhibiting this behavior, and you are only privy to a small view of their overall life. Be patient, give them a break when they need it, and understand that meaningful change happens very slowly for some people. Help them to celebrate the little things! This will only help deepen your relationship, and reassures them that your office represents a safe space where they can grow and heal at their own pace.
What a coincidence…
So the two biggest things you can do for someone are to listen and to be patient! Aren´t we lucky?! As audiologists, we are the experts on listening! The great thing is, listening well can have a positive impact on just about every aspect of our lives. Given our current global circumstances, where billions are now locked-in at home with their families, what better time to practice our listening and understanding abilities? When you find yourself particularly stressed or upset, practice listening. Talk to a friend, family member, or anyone who might be willing to share their time with you. See how the other person responds to you (at a safe distance obviously). Notice how it feels to be heard and have your needs recognized, or conversely, notice how it feels when you talk to someone who clearly isn’t listening as well as they could. Use this as a guide, and when you return to the clinic see how your interactions with patients change when you practice good listening. It can make a world of difference, or at least make quarantining with family a little more insightful.
One last thing…
A final piece of advice: never give advice which is outside your scope of practice. You are first and foremost an audiologist, not a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. They are there to see you for your hearing expertise. It is not within our scope of practice to offer mental health care. In order to better assist those patients who need some extra help mentally and/or emotionally, network with local mental health care professionals so you have a great referral in hand for those who are struggling. This extends to friends and family as well, be careful giving advice that may be out of your element! They may hold you responsible if their situation does not improve.
If you encounter someone who you think may be a danger to themselves or others there are resources available to help.
I invite you to watch a wonderful video by Author Brené Brown on how to handle difficult or emotional conversations.