Behind those eyes: When customer service turns into grief counselling

By Alice Vanderpol, 2018 Pharmacy Assistant of the Year

The word ‘grief’ encompasses all feelings of sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, suffering, heartbreak, despair and many more.

It’s also a word that I am no stranger to. In 2004, I experienced the loss of my older brother. He was only 23 years old and he had a future awaiting him. Unfortunately, it was cut short way too soon. Like me, I’m sure many of you have also experienced grief. When someone important to us dies, it represents an end to what has been familiar for us, and we must adapt to that new (usually unwanted) reality.

Loss is a universal experience; but death is not the only significant loss that causes us grief. There are many losses that affect us all throughout our life. Feelings of loss and grief can also be experienced after we lose someone or something we care about such as the loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, loss of a job or the loss of important possessions. It can also come about when you lose your way of life. For instance, being diagnosed with an illness such as cancer or diabetes. Women can experience grief when they start menopause, grieving the way of life that once was. Another significant area of loss is functional or role loss. When the opportunity to work or function in a familiar way is no longer possible, that change brings an adjustment. Retirement is one example of this. When someone retires, there is much rejoicing and celebration. But at the same time, some things are lost. Many people put a high value on what they do. Some use what they do to define who they are. As a result, retirement can bring a loss of identity, loss in meaningful activity, loss of income and a loss in the role of being a useful, contributing member of society.

Understanding grief, and the different causes and degrees, is so important in our line of work as pharmacy assistants. We are faced daily with people who are grieving. Increasingly, we are becoming aware of the issues customers face as they confront the many inevitable challenges that life losses present.

I had the opportunity to sit with an elderly lady at work, grieving the loss of her husband.  She came into work with an invoice for medications belonging to her late husband.  We supplied all of his medications through a Webster-pak. She was distressed to say the least and couldn’t understand why she was charged for medications when her husband was deceased. Unfortunately it was an issue of bad timing; the invoice had already been sent out before her husband had passed away and she received it in the mail after. Thankfully we were able to resolve it as quickly and as delicately as possible. The incident, although very distressing on her behalf, gave me the opportunity to sit with her while she cried and spoke about her husband.  I felt privileged and honoured to be able to just sit and be with her. I didn’t have to say much; my presence and genuine care was enough for her.

This experience changed me as a pharmacy assistant. Often I would spend hours packing Webster-paks, with only a name on the pack; there was no attachment or thought to the person who belonged to the pack. After my experience with a grieving widow, I then saw the packs as a person – husband, wife, father, mother, sister, brother etc. This totally changed me; my empathy towards our customers grew and the value I placed on what I did changed.

When we serve customers who have experienced significant loss (whether death of someone loved, or some of the ‘little deaths’ I mentioned earlier, or losses that are inescapable throughout life), most of us struggle to know how we can effectively help that person. We often feel quite inadequate to know what to say or do, or how to help.

I believe each one of us has enormous potential to help a grieving customer. A few things to consider are:

1. Be kind and patient

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘being kind doesn’t cost you anything’. It’s true! Be kind to your customers. We all have ‘those’ customers who like to challenge us and cause us grief from time to time, but do we really know what’s going on behind those eyes?  They could be in the midst of grief and everyone handles grief differently. So be kind and be patient.  And if they’re just grumpy, then you never know, you may just get them to smile one day!

2. Acknowledge their grief

Let them know you care. Acknowledging that their loss is important is a great start. Just a simple, ‘I’m so sorry to hear of your loss’ or ‘I’m so sorry to hear what you’re going through’ will often bring them immediate comfort.

3. Listen

Often we are too quick to offer advice or have the feeling like we have to say the right thing. Grieving people need to talk and for that to happen, someone has to be willing to listen.

4. Offer help

Ask them how you can help – don’t assume what they will need, but do offer your help. Most importantly, be genuine in your offer. Don’t offer and not follow through. A lot of our customers become our extended pharmacy family, so this may or may not be appropriate depending on your relationship with them. Another option is to connect them with information, resources or professional help.

5. Follow up

A simple follow up phone call is sometimes all that is needed to show them that their Pharmacy Family cares about them.

Grief is hard to navigate for those that are grieving and for those who are walking the journey by their side. Remember, we don’t have to have all the answers and we can’t fix their circumstances, but we can help alleviate their pain by showing genuine customer care and concern.