I was beginning to think I was a failure…
We’ve recently had a rash of deaths among our circle of friends. Death is no stranger to me but, the after death phenomena is not something I have a lot of experience with. Or so I thought. I studied grief counseling in Graduate school and the ‘Stages of Grief’ in Nursing School and the no end of books, articles, support groups, and blogs dedicated to ‘grieving’. The prevailing message was that grief was an expected consequence of loss, and that ‘resolving’ that grief required work. ‘Good Grief!’ More work!
I have had only eight close relatives, and one special friend, die during my lifetime. Between the ages of 8 – 60, I attended five of the funerals. I bawled my eyes out at my friend Jessie’s. It felt very, very good. It felt even better to laugh when we all proceeded to the Columbarium, which Jessie had financed, and the Pastor was feverishly trying to stuff her ashes into the too small space. Dad’s funeral was fun. He was a colorful character and stories were told and re-told, and life went on. I did cry a lot right after he died. I cried for hours, even as I went for a run, got the children off to school, and tended to chores. I knew I was crying because I was going to miss him, and then it was over. I didn’t cry at my Mother’s funeral, but I certainly spent time recalling life lived with her. But I never experienced anything remotely resembling the ‘grieving’ I had been taught. There must be something wrong with me.
If I Don’t Know The Word Grieving, How Do I Know If I’m Doing It?
And does it really matter? I noticed this when I was reviewing my experiences of loss. From this vantage point, nothing in my personal experience sounds like the grief I’ve studied. Although granting that ‘grief is highly variable’, the vast body of writing on grief defines it as encompassing mental or cognitive distress. physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, muscle weakness, chills, nervous system hyperactivity, and insomnia, and emotions such as: sadness, longing, loneliness, sorrow, self-pity, anguish, guilt, anger, and (the token mention of) relief. How is relief NOT like the others? According to this, I’ve not grieved the loss of a loved one, and I’m OK with that. But I’ve grieved other losses if I use my more preferred definition of grief as ‘intense emotional suffering caused by a loss’, rather than the more encompassing ‘grief is the reaction to loss’ (“The Last Dance: Encountering Death & Dying” by DeSpelder & Strickland).
The Birth of the Medical Model
Sigmund Freud retains the credit for first coining the phrase “the work of mourning”. Until then bereavement was not considered a pathological condition. Thank you Sigmund. Take a quick look at the literature on Bereavement and Grief, popular and academic: psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/000617 Sep 24, 2013 – The stages of mourning and grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life. And this, latter, is one of hundreds of similar resources. They are typically written by professionals who have spent careers ‘working’ with people to resolve their grieving. Is that a problem? It can be.
- It behooves us to remember that the professionals are usually referring to a population of clients “whose lives have already been consumed by suffering, people for whom professional help is the only chance for survival” (Bonanno).
- By expanding the scope of ‘grieving’ to: ‘the reaction to loss’ , we include Everyone as subject of a pathological condition. This is a big net. The clinical criteria for use of statins has recently been expanded also.
- With the medicalization of grief, we risk blurring the line between dysfunction and normality. How many prescriptions for anti-depressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills, and tranquilizers are written each year in this country?
- Pharmaceuticals can easily blurr, and mask, the very information from our thoughts and emotions that is needed to help generate a healthier response.
Am I Allowed To Laugh?
If someone is expecting you to be ‘grieving’ then they might look askance. And if you know that laughing might offend someone then it would be kind to refrain. And what, in heaven’s name, do we say to the loved ones of the deceased. And what if I’m the bereaved, what will people think if I laugh? You get 3 days paid bereavement leave, how should you spend it? Do I have to wear a hat on my head for the ‘service’? And on and on it goes and life goes on. But, for “some bereaved people…the pain of loss simply overwhelms them, and they find it all but impossible to return to their normal daily routine….For some, this kind of struggle can endure for years. The good news is that for most us, grief is not overwhelming, or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient” (“The Other Side of Sadness” by George A. Bonanno).
Death Takes The Rap, Again
When does the sadness of the loss of another to death become the sadness for myself as a victim of that loss? It’s not Death, or in broader terms, Loss that has caused this suffering, it’s the response that the loss precipitated. What may be hiding behind the cloak of sadness could be abject fear of trying to put the pieces back together. Threats to ones’ own way of life. Very legitimate things to be stressed out about, yet, most of us do not get immobilized by the challenge. Interestingly, in our culture of quite melted norms, what may be an appropriate response in one circumstance, may be a highly dysfunctional response in another situation, or for another person. Most of us are quite adaptive.
How May I Adapt? Let Me Count The Ways
This is the fun part where I suggest doing some ‘Life Review’. My latest life review focus was on my own grieving over the death of close people – as above. But then I expanded it to include other ‘losses’. Pets were in there, and we’ve had plenty of pets! When my Mother threw out ALL my stuffed animals one day – meh. The small humiliations and embarassments. Close Relationships. Friends, OyVay! Jobs. Security. Trust. Health.
Start small, and just observe yourself at the time of the loss. Slowly let yourself notice what you were feeling / thinking, and then, when appropriate, your response.
This is true: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Isn’t this why it’s so hard to break un-productive habits??? But have fun with it. Do Not take yourself too seriously. Look and Learn. Better now than when there’s a crisis. It’s encouraging to know that most of us get through some of the most amazing losses, quite well. Bravo! Now… what should that condolence card say…?? May all your griefs be Good Grief!