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Grief work-It’s a Tough Sell

girl with eyes closedWe teach children at a very early age to avoid pain: to not touch a hot stove, to watch their fingers when a door is shut, to look both ways before crossing the street. I recently realized sitting with a client that, with grief, I’m asking people to do the very opposite–to go towards the pain–and maybe that is why it’s such a tough sell.

Who in their right mind wants to go towards pain and stay there?

The pain of grief can be overwhelming and disorienting. To lose someone you love can be life altering and people sometimes don’t know if they will get through it. When my mother was dying I remember feeling like a tsunami of pain was coming towards me and I didn’t know how I would face it and remain standing. I was afraid it would sweep me up and carry me to some dark place from where I might never come back. Two things helped me. One was someone saying to me “Of course you can and will deal with it,” and seeing healthy examples of people who did. The other was the acceptance and support of several key loved ones.

One of the things that I believe can help with grief is an understanding of what to expect and also a sense of hope for better times.

Knowing that there is purpose to our pain can help us stick with it rather than run away. And a lot of people to try to run away from the pain of grief and shut it out. This is complicated by the reaction of society and even our own well meaning loved ones who oftentimes reinforce the idea that the best way to deal with pain is to avoid it. I hear time and again from clients how the sense of loneliness and sadness is often multiplied by the well intentioned but misguided comments of others. I know people only mean the best when they say things like “Well, at least your loved one isn’t suffering anymore,”  “Don’t cry-your love one wouldn’t want you to be sad,” “Maybe you should get another dog,” “It was his time,”  “It was God’s plan,” “Be happy-she had a good life.” But all this does is tell the grieving person that it’s not all right to feel what they are feeling and that they should not feel sad. The problem is that grieving people need to feel sad and cry and talk. This is not wallowing, this is the work of grief. Grief is like a wave that you need to take your boat through and not around. It is the going through that helps us heal, that eventually gets us to calmer waters. Dr. Therese Rando talks about 6 stages of mourning and these are different than what people think about with Dr. Kubler-Ross who was talking more about dying. The 6 steps according to Dr. Rando are:

  • Recognize the loss,
  • React to the loss (which is where we process feelings of loss and the secondary losses- meaning all the accompanying losses such as with my mom losing my children’s grandmother),
  • Recollect and re-experience (this is where people have a tremendous need to talk about their loved one),
  • Relinquish old attachments,
  • Readjust, and then
  • Reinvest.

This is all explained in her wonderful book How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. So you see there is a process to go through. It doesn’t always go in order and it takes a much LONGER time than people think. Not weeks but more like one to two years for a major loss. There are a lot of steps to go through. Now this doesn’t mean it will feel as bad as it first did that whole time. The wave analogy is useful again; the waves of grief start out big and terrible and frequent. You may get knocked over again and again–barely getting up before being hit again. But over time the there is more time in between the waves and when they come they are often not as big. But be prepared, the big waves can still crash down years later. I just got pummeled the other night watching the Oscars when Bette Midler came out and sang a song that reminded me of my mother that I hadn’t heard for years. This isn’t pathological. It is the cost of doing business in this world. When you love deeply you grieve deeply and you don’t get over this kind of loss, you learn how to live with it.

Now there are people who get lost in the storm.

There are people who get stuck at one of the various stages and whose grief doesn’t seem to ever lift. This would be a more complicated grief. But do not make the mistake of thinking someone 6 months after a major loss is one of these people. Expect to see pain and, if you do, realize that the best thing you have to offer someone may be companionship in the boat they’re trying to navigate though the storm in their lives. If we better understood that then perhaps we wouldn’t steer them away from but would instead encourage them to move through the pain.

The cost of trying to avoid grief may rear its head in other ways–people may try to drink it away with alcohol, or by pulling away from other loved ones, by getting lost in work or by shutting down all feelings. I have seen this happen many times by people who were too afraid or unsupported to feel the pain of grief. We need to know that we are stronger than we realize and that we can get through the storm if we allow ourselves and others the chance to work through it.

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