Wednesday, September 21, 2016
On The Other Side Of Grief (continued 3)
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.
The first stage of grief is shock and denial. This stage is characterized by feeling and acting chaotic. Often a person will say that they feel crazy or disorganized. Often it will be difficult for the person to concentrate and stay focused. This is usually exacerbated by cultural norms that require life to go on and for the person to be "tough." The internal experience just does not fit, so the person feels guilty or ashamed that they do not have better control. No words can capture the full depth and intensity of grief, so the person has a great deal of trouble defending themselves from these messages.
The people around often have similar reactions, wanting to minimize and make things OK. There is often a sense of great helplessness. This is often captured in the phrase - "I don't know what to say." This is shock and denial on our part. The mind freezes and we draw a blank. It is the "Oh no, this can't be true." And (in a secret place) “I don't want to deal with this.” Denial is important and necessary in the beginning. Often we know the truth before we totally accept it. Shock and denial protects us from being totally overwhelmed, and then the dealing with it comes in small manageable pieces. This is why it takes so long.
It is difficult to give a time frame for stages, since each person is different and the shift from one stage to another is usually gradual, seldom sequential and not ever neat and tidy. Often a person will experience all the stages in a whirl from time to time, but each stage has a specific set of tasks that has to do with healing and restructuring and a characteristic mood or "sense of."
The shock and denial phase of the non-mourner is much shorter and usually passes quickly, and we do think of something comforting to do or say.
A person who is stuck (chronic grief) in shock and denial is amazing to be around. They seem strong and in control. We seem to admire them and wish we were that tough. Do not believe it. This type of behavior is necessary and appropriate to get through the first few days or weeks after a loss, to simply accomplish all the practical tasks required. But if there is no reaction, it is a danger sign. This stuckness is characterized by lack of, or inappropriate, affect or feeling. There is a strange incongruence in affect and behavior that does not fit the circumstances. I have come to call this "chirpy."
Chirpiness is probably the result of a lifetime of "being there" for everyone else and feeling too terrified of the vulnerability of "breaking down" and needing to ask for something from others. Someone stuck in this phase is certainly no trouble to be around. They do not bother anyone with their problems. They are also impossible to get any closer to. A safe distance from others is the rule here, so as not to risk grieving. This is most likely related to early abandonment issues and as a youngster this person was required to perform far beyond their developmental abilities. The way to help someone in this terrible dilemma is to gently insist on closeness. In short, to offer the help this person is so terrified of asking for.