Vanderbilt Pastoral Care joins forces with doctors to address complicated grief
The Rev. Lillian Strahine, M.Div. ’09, a chaplain at Vanderbilt Pastoral Care, has entered into a unique partnership with two Vanderbilt doctors to develop a plan to provide better emotional support to patients and families who experience loss or life-altering injury at Vanderbilt. This innovative partnership is touching the lives of patients and medical providers and will hopefully result in the development of a regional bereavement support network.
Every day, staff in Vanderbilt’s Department of Trauma see the pain of grief that comes from the loss of a loved one. However, under even the most tragic circumstances, the effects of grief gradually diminish over time. But for some people, these effects can persist well beyond the loss and continue to hinder one’s ability to resume a meaningful life.
It is the concern for these cases that led Drs. John A. Morris and John L. Shuster Jr. to partner with the Department of Pastoral Care to find a way to offer additional support and resources to those who experience this “complicated grief.”
It may be the first partnership of its kind. Morris, chief of Trauma and Surgical Sciences, and Shuster, professor of Psychiatry and Medicine, invited Chaplain Lillian Strahine, M.Div. ’09, to help develop a plan to provide better emotional support to patients and families that experience loss or life-altering injury at Vanderbilt.
Shuster, who joined Vanderbilt last summer, had given a grand rounds lecture in August on a research study he conducted at the Jefferson Clinic in Birmingham. The study showed promising treatment options for patients whose grief was not subsiding. Morris, who had previously been in conversation with Strahine on issues of grief and bereavement, attended the lecture. From that point on, the collaboration was formed.
“We have long understood that surgically repairing the physical damages of a traumatic injury is only the first step,” Morris said. “The patient and family must endure a long, trying journey before they can be considered fully recovered. And this is compounded by the fact that traumatic injury gives no advance notice, leaving families completely unprepared, physically and emotionally.”
As a means of assisting families with this journey, Strahine helped the Trauma Department and Burn Center host an annual memorial service, inviting families who lost loved ones over the past year to gather in a formal setting alongside physicians, nurses and other hospital staff.
“A program of this nature is much needed,” Strahine said. “We have very highly developed programs and resources for the survivors of traumatic injuries. Unfortunately, the staff at Vanderbilt is not able to save the life of every injured person that arrives at the hospital. It is important that we have something to offer to those who experience loss here and are not able to put the pieces of their lives back together and move forward.”
Following the November memorial, Morris and Shuster invited families to complete a bereavement needs assessment, which now forms the basis for ongoing focus group meetings to further develop the grief and bereavement collaboration.
“It’s important to note that grief is not a disease or mental illness,” Shuster said. “It’s a painful but natural emotional response that usually improves with time. We certainly don’t want to ‘medicalize’ grief, but we also don’t want to ignore or undertreat those who really need additional support.”
Though grief research is still in its infancy, Morris and Shuster are already collaborating in national research studies to better understand the boundaries of normal grief. In partnering with Strahine and Pastoral Care, they hope to develop relationships with local faith-based groups to provide further education about spotting complicated grief and knowing the resources that are available to those in their communities. The long-term goal is the development of a regional bereavement support network.
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