Friday, March 28, 2014

On The Other Side of Grief

Over the years, since 1978, I have heard a refrain that troubles me and seems unfair. It’ s the frequent response I hear from those around the bereaved person.  So often I hear people say, “Oh I was just a friend” or “I am just the cousin.”  As though their grief isn’t as valid somehow.  It is.  I don’t know how one measures the degree of pain for the death of a loved person.  “Mine can’t be as bad as theirs” is what I often hear.  Perhaps, who knows, but whatever degree of pain anyone feels is as important to his or her life as it is to the central figures in the tragedy.   In answer to that mistaken assumption I wrote the following article, “On The Other Side of Grief” for all those who are on the other side yet part of the inner circle.  Shutting down grief always creates distance and safety; getting close risks being vulnerable to loss once again.
     Just as grief is the natural and normal human response to loss, so is our response to a grieving person.  It is very difficult to see someone we know who has experienced a great loss and not want to "do something" to help.  Both grief and the response to grief have gotten lost along the way.  This essay then is about describing and supporting our natural and normal responses to someone else's grief.  It is a parallel process and embodies similar stages, but requires only the awareness to trust what we can do to help.

     This parallel process is important not only to help the grieving person recover, but also to accommodate and create the inevitable new relationship with the bereft person.  Significant loss irrevocably changes people and therefore any and all relationships.  So part of the helping process is to accept the changed person and relationship along with their loss.

     There is so much to say about loss because the range of emotions and behaviors is so enormous.  Much has been written in recent years about the stages of grief that have become part of the common wisdom and seem pretty accurate.  However, the mourner
does not experience stages - just feelings.  Often these are strange, unfamiliar and very intense feelings that people have spent a lifetime learning to control.  So reassurance is one of the first responses anyone can give.  It is often helpful for people to at least understand what is happening to them.  Then they do not have the added burden of thinking something is wrong with them. What is "wrong," is that they have lost something or someone significant.

     It seems important to understand that any encounter with a grieving person is unsatisfying.  This is so because neither party can give the other what they want.  We do not have the power to give back what has been lost, and the grieving person cannot give us the smile and assurance that our help has made everything all right.  The greater the loss, the longer this will be true.  However, over time our help does help.  It is analogous to applying salve to a wound.  The salve will not magically heal, but over time the salve plus the healing power of the body, will at some point heal the wound.

     What seems important is to recognize some of the signs of mourning and to know we will have a parallel process.

     Having dealt with grief from the inside out as a bereaved parent and a bereaved child, and from the other side of grief as a professional, there are a few other things I have learned.

            Sudden, shocking loss is one of the most difficult aspects of our humanness.  I am talking about any loss, not only death.  There is divorce, loss of jobs, loss of health and youth, moving, etc.  And the biggest surprise: Wonderful events always embody loss.  The birth of a child, marriage, a promotion, a new house and any success means leaving something behind.

            Most people move through grief in the context of family, friends and community.  Many with the help of their faith and church.  It is only a problem when a person gets stuck in one of the stages.  This brings me to the two most common questions asked.  First is "Well, how long will this take?" or "How long should it take?" Second is, "Is this normal?"

            In the attempt to answer these questions I have defined grief as either acute or chronic.  Acute grief is the normal, natural process that people move through.  Chronic grief is when the grieving process is shut down and stuck in a particular phase of the grieving process.  It doesn’t matter how or when this happens, if the process is shut down it will never be finished.

The first year is the hardest.  It is the hardest because it is the anniversary year.  Each holiday or special time is the first without the lost person, lost job, lost community, or whatever the particular loss might be.  Around the first year anniversary a marked change is usually evident.  Not that grieving is done, but the acute submersion is less.  I am deliberately not being very specific, because grief is so individualized.  To set time frames would compromise the respect and dignity of a person's right to grieve in their own time and in their own way.  There simply is no logical sequence to all the feelings - they come when they come, and not on schedule.

            However, given all that, there are some behaviors that suggest when a person is in chronic grief.  Let me step back and say that what makes grief so mysterious and hard is that it cuts right through all the defenses and touches our core.  In cutting through it touches all other grief and unresolved issues and brings them to the surface with the current grief.  That is a lot of the sense of being out of control and feeling crazy.  If there are significant unresolved issues, the defensive system will go into overdrive and the result is that a person gets stuck.  Much like a record, just going round and round in the same phase.  This is also true for those around the grieving person.  If we have unresolved issues, we will have a difficult time being around any grief.  It is difficult to discern the difference, because "stuckness" is simply an extension of normal, acute grief.  The key is that it "feels off" to people around them.

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