Manchester University
Oak Leaves

March 3, 2017

Bouquet of Flowers

Death and Grief: There is No 'Normal'

Virginia Rendler

What is the normal grieving period? How do ‘healthy’ people normally grieve? These were a few of the questions that Tim Polakowski aimed to answer in his Discussion Day session “Death and Grief.” 

The Death and Grief workshop for Discussion Day on February 22 looked at the process of grief and discussed its effects in an educational and fulfilling way. Polakowski started by reminding participants that the chance of them and everyone they know dying is 100%. There is no way around it, and the grieving process can be much easier once that fact is accepted, although there is no doubt it is difficult. 

The five stages of grief as developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Polakowski told the group to forget that and erase it from their minds. Grief is not linear; it does not progress the same way for everyone, and there is no formula that fits every person. 

The group also learned that the two parts to understanding grief are attachment and identity. When someone dies, a relationship is lost, and a part of someone’s identity is also lost. There are also many complicating factors to grief that make every experience with grief different for every person. Complications include abuse, dementia, suffering, money, age and many more. Grief can be more than loss from death, and there are many forms of loss. 

Polakowski graduated from Manchester University with a double major in social work and Spanish, and a minor in gerontology. He received a Fulbright Grant to teach in South Korea, and finished his Master’s degree at the University of Michigan where he was awarded ‘MSW Student of the Year’. He has worked in nursing homes and hospice, and is now the Social Work Hospice Educator for Hospice of Northwest Ohio. 

Polakowski always enjoyed being around elderly adults, even when he was a child. He was close with his grandmother, and loved volunteering in nursing homes. “Working in hospice is a calling,” Polakowski said. “Death and goodbyes were always very hard for me as a little kid. Growing up, the authenticity of the dying process always intrigued me. I wanted to learn more about it myself, both the physical and emotional processes, and then be able to teach others about it as they are going through it. The neat stories about people saying goodbye, giving clues, or talking about seeing angels before they die has also inspired and continues to inspire me in this work.” He said that Hospice work is meaningful for him because he gets to help people help make their final goodbyes, whatever that means to the person. He is able to take away so much fear just by providing answers, services and reassurance. 

Senior Holly Beer said that her main takeaway from the session was that there is no cookie-cutter method when it comes to dealing with death and grief. “There are many different factors involved in grieving, and it is important to allow everyone to grieve in their own way,” Beer said. “One of the hardest, and obviously unavoidable, things people deal with is the death of loved ones. It is so important to know the process of grieving and how to help yourself and others to find their new normal after the loss of a loved one. I'm so very thankful to Manchester University for going above and beyond in hosting important sessions and workshops such as Discussion Day.” Beer felt it was a great way for students, faculty and staff to become more informed and cultured.

Graduating from Manchester helped Polakowski find what he was meant to do. “Manchester provided me the foundation and varied experienced that served as a spring board for who I am as a professional and as a person today,” Polakowski said. “It gave me an opportunity to test out my interests and build further skills and leadership in the areas where I did find my interests. The social work program specifically prepared me in a similar way. It provided me the foundation knowledge and skills to go onto my Fulbright Scholarship, graduate school at the University of Michigan and helping the hundreds if not thousands of families that I have so far in my seven years of professional work.”

Participants learned that in order to comfort someone grieving, it is best to respond right away, follow up after and most importantly to listen. Polakowski’s ultimate message was that grief is normal, but there is no such thing as normal grief or a normal timeline for grief. It is not about saying the right thing, but about being present.