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Grieving Their Home

July 22, 2021 by Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ in RCRI News in Brief

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 News in Brief from the Resource Center for Religious Institutes (RCRI) and is posted with permission.



As the leader of a religious congregation, have you ever found yourself in the painful position of making the difficult decision that your senior sisters can no longer safely live in their current home and need to move to a new home better suited to their evolving health needs?

The new homes we find (or build) for our loved ones are often inviting and beautiful places. Most often we move our loved one(s) to places that have been designed to meet the needs of older persons and offer a myriad of opportunities for activities that were not available to our elders in their previous residences. 

Imagine our surprise then when we are confronted by the reality that our older sisters are not grateful for all the effort we have put into creating this new situation, nor do they seem to be adjusting well to their new (and in our view) improved living situation! This new place is so beautiful, we tell ourselves. How could they not recognize how lucky they are to be in such a safe and beautiful environment?

When talking with others who have witnessed a "post-move funk" in their loved one, I have heard them describe their older sisters as "grieving". For me, use of the word grief has felt too intense--an overstatement. I've often wondered, "Shouldn't we reserve the word "grief" for when we've experienced the loss of a loved one?"

Then I came across the very helpful book by Tom Attig entitled, "How We Grieve: Relearning the World". 

In his book, Attig makes the distinction between bereavement (a state or condition caused by death of a loved one) and grieving, which he describes as the process of accommodating this and other types of losses or a major disruption in our lives. According to Attig, grieving is the process during which we re-learn our worlds.

As human beings, he says, we establish patterns in our lives, patterns we come to take for granted and upon which we rely for coherence in our lives. He describes these as "givens" -- for example -- the arrangement of the rooms in our home, knowing who lives next door to us, etc. These are rarely objects of much reflection on our part -- until we lose one or more of these "givens" and must re-learn our world. 

According to Attig, the need to engage in this re-learning process is especially critical when we experience a loss in either of these two areas:
  1. The loss of our home. We are losing the familiar physical content for our lives and all of the objects, spaces, and conditions we have assumed as givens in our physical environment.
  2. The loss of a relationship. We need to re-learn who we are now that we no longer have this relationship.

When we experience either of these two losses, we always need to re-learn a new identity and who we will be in our new circumstances.

I believe Attig's observations and his recognition of the first loss -- of a familiar home -- can be applied to what might be happening in the hearts of our older sisters when they move from the place in which they have lived the majority of their lives to a new home. Even though their new home might be beautiful or better suited to their needs as they have aged, our loved ones probably are grieving.

For me, because the new home we built for them was so beautiful and much better suited to meet their needs, it never occurred to me that some of our sisters would be grieving the loss of their previous home. I expected them to be excited and grateful for the beautiful new residence we built for them.

We did recognize the loss of our motherhouse -- the physical space that housed so much of their histories and so many of their memories -- would be painful. So, we created a variety of rituals that allowed everyone to say goodbye to the old motherhouse. We were attuned to the reality that our motherhouse was not just the container for physical possessions -- but that it held our social and relationship histories. We attempted to say goodbye well. What I was ill prepared for was the difficulty of some of our sisters to say "hello" to their new home.

Some sisters seemed to have significant challenges in adjusting to and learning their way around their new apartments and/or the new building. Some very capable older women found it almost impossible to make simple decisions about where to place everyday objects in their lovely new apartments. I was surprised to see their vulnerability when the "given" of whom they share their meals with was disrupted. I was shocked that reducing the number of chairs at the tables in the new Dining Room -- to ease difficulties with hearing -- was troubling to some.

The difficulty these previously well-coping women had in responding to these and other seemingly small challenges left me puzzled. However, using Attig's framework, I was able to recognize that these were all examples of how these sisters were facing the challenge of re-learning their worlds. It helped me to not only understand what was going on, but to be more compassionate. 

So, how might we support our elders as they face and engage in the grief and inevitable disruption that moving into a new senior living situation can cause?

Here are some ideas from Attig:

  1. Attig notes that when someone is grieving the loss of their familiar physical surroundings, they can overestimate the extent of the damage they're experiencing. In reality, rarely has a move to a senior facility caused the older person to lose everything that matters to them. Pointing out to a loved one what has NOT changed, despite the disruption caused by their move to a new space, can sometimes be helpful.

  2. Attig reminds us that even though the initial months might be rocky, over time health individuals can -- and most of the time, do -- discover the capacity within themselves to adjust and accommodate to the differences in their living situation. So, while it might take a bit to get there, do not give up hope as this adjustment most likely will happen!

However, as we know, individuals vary in their capacity to carry distress. If our loved ones have had a lifetime of difficulty in adjusting to new circumstances, adjustments to their new residence might indeed take a very long time. But Attig notes, if we are patient with them, most people often recover to re-create much of what previously brought coherence to their lives.

  3.For those supporting sisters who live a communal lifestyle, Attig refers to some helpful research. This research indicates that when a group of people share the same loss, the coping of the individuals in the group is often linked to and impacted by the coping of other group members.

Therefore, it might be helpful to remind community members that they have the power to help one another move on. How each person faces the challenge of this re-learning process can inhibit or support the ability of other sisters to cope and heal. Telling one another stories that focus only on the past can get in the way of each other's ability to invest in their new home. The longer we cling to the past, the farther away a sense of comfort and coherence in the present will become. 

When we share grief with others in healthy ways, we offer each other support by helping one another regain our bearings. We can remind each other of the stories that demonstrate how we have faced challenges over time, both individually and collectively. This experience can become one of those stories.

Finally, Attig ecourages us to be patient and alert to statements that indicate our loved one is beginning to feel that life is making sense again. These kinds of statements indicate that their process of re-learning their world and embracing what is new is taking hold. While it may take time, re-gaining the sense that one is "at home" will indeed come.


Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ, the former president of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is a Facilitation & Engagement Specialist at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., an Appleton-based, integrated Total Project Management firm serving clients throughout Wisconsin and across the country. 

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