Friday, October 12, 2012

No Grief, No Relief: Why Grieving Is The Price of Healing (and 10 Ways to Work Through the Pain of Loss)

No Grief, No Relief:  Why Grieving Is The Price of Healing (and 10 Ways to Work Through the Pain of Loss)
The loss of a loved one is terrible, and it can be tempting to do anything in your power to avoid the pain. However, says Arleah Shechtman, you must choose to feel and face your grief. Only then will you truly begin to heal.

Kalispell, MT (October 2012)—If you’ve ever lost someone you deeply loved, you know the truth: our culture doesn’t believe in grief.  Sure, people will come to the funeral, give awkward hugs, and send flowers, but let a few weeks pass and you’re expected to “move on” and to get (or at least act) “back to normal.”  For this reason—and because it’s so painful to face the full brunt of our loss—many of us lock our grief away.  We distract ourselves with work, numb ourselves with drugs (prescribed or otherwise), or maybe just trudge through the day in a dull state of stoicism.
It’s understandable.  Grief sucks.  No one wants to acknowledge—and certainly not feel firsthand—the raw, primal, out-of-control emotions that come along with great loss. But psychotherapist and executive coach Arleah Shechtman says that without grief there can be no healing.
“My fifteen-year-old daughter Sharon died nearly 35 years ago of a drug overdose, and in the decades since I have learned that grief is an ongoing, never-ending process,” says Shechtman, author of the new book My Beloved Child: My journey since the death of my daughter (Fifth Wave Leadership Publications, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-4750469-9-1, $13.95). “And I’ve also discovered that you have to make the choice to grieve—not just at the beginning but again and again as the years go by. Unfortunately, society discourages us from making that choice.”
Grieving is messy, nonlinear, and unpredictable.  In a society that values “bucking up,” moving on, bringing order out of chaos and finding salvation through hard work, this is downright inconvenient.  Plus, as Shechtman has discovered from counseling patients, people are afraid if they fully experience the crushing pain of loss,  they’ll be totally swamped with unmanageable feelings for the rest of their lives.
“Grief can be delayed through various tactics, but it can’t be denied altogether,” Shechtman warns. “However, exerting that much control over your emotions, thoughts, and body is very stressful and will impact your physical health. Even more dire is the emotional and spiritual stagnation that a suppression of grief causes. When you choose not to grieve, you will be unable to rebuild a meaningful, fulfilling, and loving life—which I promise is possible, even though you will never ‘complete’ the grieving process.”
Shechtman’s book describes in brutal and powerful detail what it’s like to make the choice to grieve—over and over again. Each chapter describes her experiences during a given five-year time block, ranging from the first five years to thirty-five years after the loss. The book is interspersed with her raw, moving, and beautiful poems, which played a large role in her healing process. And while it’s written from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child, its lessons will be invaluable to anyone who has experienced a loss.
Here, Shectman offers advice on how to view and handle grief, and insight as to how facing it can ultimately help you to heal:

Don’t squelch your grief. It’s okay if you make other people uncomfortable. Grieving isn’t something we learn. It’s instinctive and primal, and expressing it isn’t something that you can plan, script, or tone down—nor should you attempt to. The emotions you are feeling go beyond words, concepts, or thoughts. And only by fully expressing them can you begin to heal.

“Cry, scream, and allow yourself to ride the waves you’re feeling,” urges Shechtman. “I remember wailing, keening, and crying many times after losing Sharon. Years after her death, I found myself screaming and jumping up and down in anger while visiting her grave. All of these behaviors transgress the boundaries of ‘polite’ and even ‘acceptable’ behavior, but believe me, they are necessary—and society’s unwritten rules about the expression of grief are unhealthy and wrong. Trust your process.”

Grief comes in waves. Let them happen. They will pass. These waves, which surface at unpredictable times, are relatively short in duration but may be very intense. When you ride the waves to the crest and express whatever is there, the wave will ebb, and you will be able to go on living for awhile. And over time, the waves of grief happen further apart and are less intense and devastating. Realize, though, that if you ignore your feelings, you will never experience “normal,” because your intense emotions will always be trying to escape.   The magic of having your feelings is that there is a beginning middle and an end, and then you can go on to something else.  Not having them is like having a sour stomach; they lay there never quite resolving themselves.

“Many bereaved individuals are afraid of being stuck forever in the throes of intense grief if they allow themselves to feel it even once,” shares Shechtman. “I promise, that is not the case. I found that my most intense bouts of grief were relatively short—less than ten minutes.

“I also find that after each period of intense grief, it helps to do something mundane and normal,” she adds. “For instance, my husband and I went to Burger King for a meal after Sharon’s emotionally exhausting funeral. Those few moments allowed me to regroup enough to go on, and that incident was the beginning of a pattern that still works for me.”

Don’t expect to ever “get over it.” It’s true that the way you feel and express grief will change over time, but you will never reach a point where you say to yourself, “I’m finished grieving.” You’ve crossed over an invisible force field, and there is no way to return to the way things were before. In fact, believing that you should eventually finish the grieving process is like expecting an amputee to stop missing her arm.

“This truth is contrary to what our society says grief should be like,” Shechtman points out. “That is, a relatively brief period of mourning is allowed—or rather, tolerated—and then the bereaved individual is expected to move on and not bother others with expressions of grief again. I’m here to tell you that this expectation is totally unrealistic. But even though it sounds like a paradox, making the difficult choice to let grief—in its many manifestations—be a part of your life also means that you will experience growth, healing, and appreciation for the world and relationships around you.”

Don’t listen when people try to silence you with a Valium or prayer. The expression of grief is often deeply uncomfortable for others to witness. And after weathering the initial shock of losing a loved one, as Shechtman has pointed out, others want the bereaved to “move on,” to adopt a stoic attitude, or to medicate themselves—anything to avoid being reminded of and upset by fears they themselves don’t dare to contemplate.

“I found out in no uncertain terms that the world doesn’t sanction grief when the minister at my daughter’s grave side told me, ‘Okay, it’s over, now buck up and deal with it,’” Shechtman recalls. “Nevertheless, I grieved loudly and often for at least the first year, upsetting many folks who wanted me to shut up and take some pills. Please know that I’m not against medication or prayer in general—only when they’re used to prematurely and falsely stop the grieving process.”

Allow yourself to feel anger. It doesn’t make you a bad person. When Shechtman insists on the importance of expressing your grief, she means anger, too. This is often an especially thorny emotion to process because it involves the need to place blame, which can sometimes fall on the dead person and/or on the bereaved. These expressions of anger are seen as inappropriate and elicit protests such as, “It’s not fair,” “The dead aren’t here to defend themselves,” “They didn’t die on purpose,” “You’re being selfish,” etc.

 “Nevertheless, it’s crucial to articulate your anger, which is one of those extreme feelings that needs to be let out in order for healing to take place,” Shechtman asserts. “I felt really guilty after screaming my anger while visiting Sharon’s grave, but that catharsis needed to happen. And, of course, while I felt anger that I had lost her, I didn’t and still don’t hold any type of grudge against my daughter.

“Remember, at its worst, not expressing anger can lead to bitterness and cynicism,” she adds. “And at its least, it still creates a distance between you, the dead, and the living that is unbridgeable, because you can’t be safe and intimate at the same time.”

Visit the gravesite as often as you need to.  Gravesites, shrines and other meaningful locations are critical to the grieving process. Just as funerals help us say a final good-bye and make the loss real, gravesites give us a physical place to remember, grieve and recover.  If your loved one was cremated and the ashes scattered, you may want to create a memory garden or perhaps a “shrine” in your home with the person’s photo, a memento that reminds you of her, and perhaps a candle or religious symbol.

“Before Sharon’s death, I remember being very critical of funerals, cemeteries, and mourners,” shares Shechtman. “I thought it was all a lot of fuss about nothing. And I guess it is—for those who have not faced a death in the family. It is not really possible to convey bereavement, or the importance of tangible ceremonies and rituals, to the non-bereaved.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Shechtman has acknowledged, it’s all too easy to sink into a private, quiet, internal place that feels safe. The false bargain you’re making with yourself is, If I don’t think about her or talk about her, then she won’t be so gone. Asking for and accepting help is another conscious choice you will need to make.  And the support of other people really does make a difference, says Shechtman: while she isn’t conventionally religious, she says she felt a persistent sense of being ‘held up’ by all the prayers, good wishes, and positive vibes sent her way.

 “I also learned to proactively build a circle of individuals who could and would help when I needed extra support,” she recalls.  “This happened after my husband told me that while he loved me dearly and understood my pain, he couldn’t listen any more, right then. I gradually developed a list of about ten people I trusted and whom I could call, one by one, to see if they were up for my grief at that moment. Invariably, someone was always there with comfort and solace.”

Loving in the midst of grief may feel like a risk.  It is. Take it anyway. After experiencing loss, it’s natural to want to do anything and everything in your power to avoid feeling such bitter pain again. You may want to wall yourself off from life, love, and relationships of all sorts. However strong the temptation is, though, please don’t make this mistake. Despite the guilt, anguish, and self-doubt you may feel, make the choice to risk loving again.

“In the years and decades after Sharon’s death, I was fortunate enough to have friends and loved ones who called me out on the fact that I was shutting myself away,” Shechtman shares. “Yes, these accusations caused conflict. But I’m glad I chose to engage these people, because the anxiety that accompanies fear of loss is still a much better alternative to the bitter loneliness of isolation. When you disengage, you doom yourself to emotional, physical, and spiritual shutdown.

“Best—and most surprising—of all was the aftermath of choosing to love again,” she reveals. “Consciously choosing to lift my eyes, to see joy and possibilities, to build relationships, and to live instead of dying with my child have resulted in some of the happiest years of my life. And because I have been in both places—isolation and community—the contrast is startling.”

Allow new values and priorities to emerge, even if they don’t reflect the “old” you. As you begin to move on and heal from your loss, you will view, experience, and interact with the world in a different way. Shechtman remembers not understanding why she couldn’t be “like everyone else.” She eventually realized that the trouble she had relating to many others stemmed from a clash of values.

“I kept getting pushback for being too harsh or too blunt,” she explains. “I no longer had any tolerance for political correctness, and I considered my relationships to be more precious. I found myself more open with people I cared about, as well as more confrontational and demanding, since I didn’t want to leave anything unsaid or undone ever again. Essentially, I was choosing my values of growth and honesty over comfort. I decided that perfection was no longer a goal; being honest and authentic was.”

Do something meaningful to memorialize your lost loved one. We have all heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But according to Shechtman, the progression doesn’t end there. The sixth stage of grief is called “in memoriam.” It’s the need to do something creative, useful, and meaningful as a result of an event that once seemed (and might still seem) meaningless, needless, and/or absurd. For example, you might create a foundation or support group.

“Personally, my book—My Beloved Child—was a product of this stage of grief,” says Shechtman. “It was a way for me to try to put the pieces of my life and my experiences back together in a way that made sense to me, helped others, and honored Sharon. But long, long before its publication I wrote poetry to help me process this loss, and those poems are included in the book.” (NOTE: See attached tipsheet.)

Stay open to the possibility of joy. It will come. While it may be difficult to believe or understand immediately following the loss of a loved one, there is a silver lining to grief. Keeping current with sorrow (i.e., allowing yourself to grieve naturally and whenever you need to) gives you new depths of appreciation for life, joy in small delights, and a richness in relationships you may not have known was possible.

“The biggest surprise I’ve had after Sharon’s death is that my grieving has opened me up to all that is beautiful and wonderful about this world,” Shechtman says. “My appreciation for others and their struggles is greater, and I stop to smell the roses more often—something I call ‘living from the gut.’ This is the ‘payoff’ for choosing to allow yourself to grieve: After experiencing the lowest of lows, your soul and your psyche can also stretch to experience greater highs because the psyche stretches in all directions, much like a balloon.”

            “While I cannot give you a lesson plan for grieving, I can share my own experiences and assure you that there can still be hope, healing, and happiness in your life,” Shechtman concludes. “I know it will be painful, but I hope you will make the choice to fully and naturally grieve the loss of those you love. It might comfort you to realize that the life you build from this point on wouldn’t have been possible without the love you felt—and still feel—for your loved one. In a very real way, he or she is still a vital part of who you are.”

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About the Author:
Arleah Shechtman, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., is the author of My Beloved Child: My journey since the death of my daughter. She is a recognized expert on the impact of the death of a child, on marriages, families, and individual survivors. For over thirty years, she has helped parents, siblings, grandparents, and extended family grieve the loss of children, and guided them on their journeys of recovery. In addition, she has consulted with healthcare professionals whose practices involve working with clients who have lost children through illnesses, accidents, suicide, and acts of crime.

Arleah began her own journey of recovery thirty-four years ago, after the death of her fifteen-year-old daughter. She has transformed her own tragedy into a personal and professional mission to create places and resources where those struggling with the death of a child can find solace, support, and understanding of their irreparable loss.

About the Book: My Beloved Child: My journey since the death of my daughter (Fifth Wave Leadership Publications, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-4750469-9-1, $13.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, the Amazon Kindle Store, and at