Someone you love dies, or develops a chronic illness, or becomes gravely ill.
The man or woman in your life betrays you with another lover.
You become unemployed and subsequently lose your home.
The emotional result of any of this is intense sorrow and grief.
None of us can control or manipulate grief, which can become an hour-to-hour and day-to-day experience. Grieving is a living, evolving process that at times can surprise and frighten us in its power to hold us and take over our thought processes and actions.
Grieving is often long-term, but natural. It is part of a healing process that if we understand it and accept it can gain our respect and even our trust. It helps to trust that grief has a worthwhile purpose; that we need to go with it, let it take us into bitter territory. Because there we will eventually experience change and come out on the other side where acceptance, a new calm and healing will replace our anxiety and pain.
Have you ever noticed that counselors often have experienced deep sorrow, loss or pain? Or have you ever needed someone when you were suddenly struck down by grief and the person you sought out had suffered a loss or hurt like yours? Our human connection helps us survive, but the truth of walking in someone else’s shoes is deeply imbedded in our psyche. We often don’t think we can get what we need from someone who has not walked where we are walking.
Nancy Berns, a professor of sociology at Drake University, talks about the common myth that when tragedy strikes we all go through stages of grief. You know them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross established these stages in her book ON DEATH AND DYING. The wrong approach to grief is using the term STAGES.
Berns has talked to grieving people who worry when they are not angry—are not at that so-called stage. Berns response comes from contemporary research: People’s experiences with grief do not go through orderly or predictable stages. Nor is there a clear ending. Our grieving lessens and changes over time, but we can experience waves of grief throughout life.
Bottom line (and this should give those who are grieving some comfort) there is no standard to follow. Grief is often unrelenting, mysterious, and certainly a process that cannot be labeled. Berns speaks of a woman who still grieves for her dead son after three years. The mother doesn’t search for closure—she doesn’t want to forget him. Yet if she were to speak to a health provider about this, he or she might suggest that this mother has prolonged grief or exaggerated or chronic grief. She might be labeled as having a disease that needs care.
Berns states: Popular applications of the universal road map (stages of grief) often describe closure as the destination. When people travel a different route, park too long in one spot, or do not want to go in the direction others suggest, they are often defined as abnormal…the concern—people are not getting to the closure destination fast enough.
Berns’ healthy conclusion: each person has a right to his or her own way of living through loss. There is no template for grief.
Q: So what can you say to comfort a person who is grieving?
A: Though terrible loss may or may not come your way, like the death of a spouse or a child—just living gives you some preparation. Think of things you have lost—the loss of a pet, a job, and a child going off to college, a friend moving away. That’s a loss and a change and it required of you and your emotions a period of adjustment. There is not a definitive pathway that you followed to adjust—but you did. Certainly greater loss will bring more intense pain and longer grief. Your human experience will take your hand and guide you along the way.
A final thought: I recently heard a woman who had lost her father at a crucial time in her life proclaim that one should always hold on to the memory of that pain. Hers made her who she is, changed her forever, but led her down a path where she became useful and capable in her own life.
Thanks for the ideas of R.H. Douglass MSW
Thanks to Michael Brooking Photography