Living with Grief and Helping Others Grieve
By Dale Bodmer
Grief and suffering: These two words are always linked together. Merriam-Webster defines them thusly:
- deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death
- a cause of deep sadness
- pain that is caused by injury, illness, loss, etc. : physical, mental, or emotional pain
They are also common themes in songs, poems, literature of all kinds. Perhaps this is because these feelings are some of the most visceral in human nature. Maybe they are the most feared emotions of humanity.
Death is one of the greatest fears, but these two are different in one great area.
In death, your life is final, you don’t feel the loss, the fear of every day. For grief and sorrow, you see the death, and know that you, and you alone, must take the steps, the motion forward that takes you to your “new” life. A “new” life that you didn’t want, and didn’t ask for!
So, what do we know about grief and suffering? First, that it is soul crushing, and some of the loneliest times in our lives. Second, to be blunt, it is the epitome of “do or die.” You beat it, or it beats you.
Stages of grief
In most discussions of grief, the first thing we see is the famous list of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In her book, On Death and Dying, she broke down the basic stages of grief:
There they are, all nice and neat and orderly… and easy to read and process. This is where the big problem comes in!
The stages of grief are rarely nice and neat and orderly. They come, they go, you might think you’re past one step, and a couple days later, there it is, knocking at the door.
There is another thing that can, maybe, help in this battle.
These stages are not strangers to us. We often go through the same feelings when life is not treating us at its best. Of course, the loss of a pet, in childhood especially, brings us these feelings. The loss of love, now we’ve moved to the teen years. The end of our life, a breakup, forces so many of us to spend days, weeks, locked away to our own devices, fighting these same emotions!
And rarely in our young lives have we had to deal with such loss.
Now let’s break them down and look at them in a bit more detail.
I admit that a lot of this is from that great expert, the Internet, but having lost a wife of 28 years, plus this year’s death of my father, I will interject my own feelings at the appropriate time.
Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us to survive the loss.
In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense.
We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb.
We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
Denial can be a really tricky one.
I noticed, with both of my losses, that it was stronger prior to the loss. I guess when you’re actually holding the person who passes, it’s much harder to deny.
This is a big one when you get the call that someone is going, or already gone. It was a mistake, they will “snap out of it.” Something miraculous will happen, the phone will ring again, now…. Or maybe now!
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.
There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits.
It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this?” Underneath anger is pain, your pain.
It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger.
Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first, grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died.
Suddenly you have a structure: your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God,” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” (OK, this is a UU group, and usual UU topics. I was tempted to remove the mention of the deity, but then again, sometimes death brings us back to our traditional, younger life training. If for no other reason than a good embodiment of order that we can aim our bargaining/anger/hatred toward.)
After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only.
Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.
After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever.
It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of.
The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing.
If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. Addressing the depression as “not a sign of mental illness” line, I have battled depression for a long time now.
At one point, while my wife was sick, I was talking to my doctor, and I mentioned something about the level of anxiety I was dealing with. His response was, “Now you have a reason to be anxious, and depressed. Don’t even think about it.” (This is a very trusted member of my medical team, and while his statement might seem a bit flip, it was the right thing for him to say.)
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.
This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing.
In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, they realize that change is part of moving forward.
On this note, it was kind of interesting that after 28 years of marriage, one morning I realized that I didn’t have to put everything in its designated spot. I got to re-designate! As simple as that seems, it was a revelation.
But wait, there’s more …
Relief is one stage I don’t see on lists, but is definitely felt by many people. Usually when there is a long battle with illness, or just the eventual “clock running down” of some older folks who seem to lose a bit more of themselves each day/week/month. It largely comes from the intense watching, and need for care.
This is definitely one that you have to be very aware of. Like all the others, it is normal, but it is also one that can make you want to beat yourself up. “How can you feel relief when part of your actual being is no longer there?”
The peace in the house, when you finally get to turn off that awful sounding “oxygenator,” is part of the calm of knowing that the pain, the suffering of your loved one is over, and they are at peace. The best way to deal with this is to treat it not as a celebration of relief, but as the end of this pain, this uncertainty of the one who has gone.
Living with grief
Coping with death is vital to your mental health. It is only natural to experience grief when a loved one dies. The best thing you can do is allow yourself to grieve.
There are many ways to cope effectively with your pain:
Seek out caring people.
Find relatives and friends who can understand your feelings of loss.
Join support groups with others who are experiencing similar losses. I can swear by support groups, having dealt with the Wellness Center in Blue Ash, for cancer, they allow caregivers equal ‘rights’ to their groups, and up to three years after the loss of a family member for the caregiver to keep taking part in their programs.
Express your feelings.
Tell others how you are feeling; it will help you to work through the grieving process. This is a spot where blogging, journaling, can help (even if only for your view). All means of expressing yourself are allowed.
Take care of your health.
Maintain regular contact with your family physician and be sure to eat well and get plenty of rest. Be aware of the danger of developing a dependence on medication or alcohol to deal with your grief.
This is one I am facing right now. My mother, 87, can’t eat. I know it’s counter to everything you read, but my recommendation to her is junk food! She is eating so little, that I’ve been trying to increase her caloric intake. Right now, she needs fuel much more than nutrition.
Accept that life is for the living.
It takes effort to begin to live again in the present and not dwell on the past. I found a clip for this one, but it was kind of hard to hear, and didn’t think the acoustics in this room would help.
It was the Dalai Lama talking about this point. He said that you should think of the person who has died. To think, and try to live, as they would have wanted you to go on, after their passing.
Postpone major life changes.
Try to hold off on making any major changes, such as moving, remarrying, changing jobs or having another child. You should give yourself time to adjust to your loss.
This is always my toughest one to even think about. At the time of a major loss, there is nothing facing you but major life changes: finances, housing, work, family. In my late 50’s, I felt like the kids in school, in late May, looking out the window at the kids who went to other schools and were already outside, playing! I went part-time as soon as I could work it out with my employer.
It can take months or even years to absorb a major loss and accept your changed life. But also, be patient with your family, your support group, they are trying to help, but sometimes they need your patience.
Think of new ways to express yourself, get out and spend time in the sunshine, the air, in nature. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I didn’t want to go home to an empty house with a television. I went to the Loveland Bike Trail. (It was very close to where I was working at the time.) It was deserted, and I just walked, trying to look, to watch, trying not to think of just how inhuman we can be with each other. As I walked into a clearing, a flock of birds took off, flying over the river.
As they would have the day before, the week before. As they would years from that day. Centering myself in the nature of their actions, made me realize that nature would persevere. That the earth would continue, on its course without comment or consequence of what we did to each other.
Seek outside help when necessary.
If your grief seems like it is too much to bear, seek professional assistance to help work through your grief. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek help.
Helping others grieve
If someone you care about has lost a loved one, you can help them through the grieving process.
Share the sorrow.
Allow them — even encourage them — to talk about their feelings of loss and share memories of the deceased. This is not the time for the perfectly normal human reaction of, “oh yeah, you think that is bad, well one time, i had to…” You know the drill, and you need to shelve it for now.
This is also a time for physical contact. Don’t talk—hug them, hold their hands, look them in the eye, and listen to them, feel their loss.
Don’t offer false comfort.
It doesn’t help the grieving person when you say “it was for the best” or “you’ll get over it in time.” Instead, offer a simple expression of sorrow and take time to listen.
This is one that really drove me to the brink of physical madness! I have had some very choice words for the “but God needed her more than you did,” “God has a plan” comments. Yeah, a really big, stupid plan.
Offer practical help.
Babysitting, cooking and running errands are all ways to help someone who is in the midst of grieving. An addition to this one is in helping them do these things.
Sure, it’s good for someone to pick up a few things for you, but by taking them shopping, by helping them cook, you are supporting them, while showing them that they can still do the things that they have always done.
Remember that it can take a long time to recover from a major loss. Make yourself available to talk. That’s what the article said, anyway.
As I mentioned before, make yourself available to listen, to support, to just sit in quiet supporting tranquility.
Encourage professional help when necessary.
Don’t hesitate to recommend professional help when you feel someone is experiencing too much pain to cope alone. This one is sometimes a hard one to bring up. There’s still a lot of stigma with seeking professional help.
This article is based on a sermon by Harmony UU member Dale Bodmer, and is published here with permission from the author.