Saturday, September 24, 2016
On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 4)
The next stage is depression. This is usually the longest, lasting up to a year or longer in duration. This is often a very private time - the mourner is deeply internalized. It looks like withdrawal- and it is. This is where the major work is done. Sadness, remorse, guilt, weeping, sighing and a lower level of activity characterize this time. Life feels bleak, futile and sometimes meaningless. Most people continue to work and do things as usual, but it is like going through the motions. That is because most of the energy is being used to recover, much like recovering from major surgery. There is not much lightness or joy during this time. Depending on the nature and degree of the loss, this is an existential crisis, an identity crisis; one’s entire life view is being redone. For example, in dealing with my own bereavement - the death of my 15-year-old daughter - the belief that I could protect my children was shattered. I realized about eight months after her death that this loss was no guarantee or insurance that I would not lose again. I realized that I had no exemptions from life, no special privileges. And perhaps the hardest: No restitution. No one would or could make up or replace what I had lost. I was faced with terrible fear and the choice of whether I wanted to risk loving again. All those thoughts, feelings and decisions occurred during my very long depression.
This is an equally difficult time for those around the grieving person. Grief goes on longer than anyone wants it to, or thinks it should. Everyone gets sick of it, including the bereft person - and still it goes on. Hang in, is the message here. It will end, time does heal. As helpers, once again we feel our own helplessness and impotence and we want to withdraw. That is a normal and natural response and to be trusted. Some distance is necessary at this point because so much of the work is private and internal. Just sitting together, walking, or a brief handclasp is the most required and the most effective way through this time.
This is the rebuilding time after a shattering experience and all the little bits and pieces that take so long to accept need to be put back together, often in a different configuration. Once again this is the continued evolution of a new history together.
The last phase a person can be stuck in (chronic grief) is depression. This is really hard to call because depression is also the longest part of recovery. We often get weary of the length of depression. So much happens during this time; the most significant choice being made is whether or not to pick up and go on with life. A person stuck in depression uses the loss as the reason to stay in place. The loss is used as a sort of brake and break from moving too fast. Sometimes the person just stops and never seems to get moving again.
I will never forget how a friend of mine helped me move on. About two years after my daughter's death, he commented that I used her death like a black ace, to hide behind. I, of course, was very hurt and indignant at first, but as time passed I realized he was right. Again, it was thre the kindest. I am glad he and others cared enough for me to want me back.
This is also another example of the new person and new relationship emerging from the old. Because people pursued me, and because I chose to live, I have been able to recover. My goal has become to turn around and give back to others who have just begun their journey.
Being stuck in depression is probably related to an early loss of self. More than any other stage, this may require some additional professional help. It is broader and more pervasive than most other feelings and harder to define and get to the root. It is amazing to me how many people sense that they are stuck and simply need support to follow through. Perhaps some reassurance that they are not bad or crazy - just stuck for the moment.
In many instances, professional counseling is the only help available. This is due to not having families and communities easily available anymore. It is also due to the strange lack of permission in our culture to grieve. The further away from the event, the less it is OK to still feel sad or be mourning. After 3-6 months the person is expected to be back to normal, and after the first year fewer and fewer people even remember the loss. It takes a good three years to feel good after moving geographically from one home to another, let alone a death, divorce or a major illness. The less tangible and concrete the issue, the more pressure to forget it, or the implication that it is only in our head, but not real pain
Counseling offers an understanding ear, supportive assurance, cognitive understanding, and simply a safe place to continue the process. For a person to admit they need help, and then to actually go for help, takes enormous courage and strength - because the message is that we should be tough, handle our own problems, and after all, this is "only feelings.”