The challenge is some people move quickly to anger in their grief and don’t handle insensitivity with appreciation for the effort. If you tell a grieving person to make lemonade out of their lemons when they are in the middle of a swamp wrestling mythological creatures in the river of Styx, you will contribute to a sense of alienation those who have suffered a profound loss feel when everybody around them is out of step with their experience and essentially telling them to “get over it.” You won’t make their pain worse. You may become a recipient of their resentment.
When I worked at a psychiatric hospital there were times family members brought in a loved one for a psychiatric assessment due to their level of distraught after hearing news of the unexpected loss of a loved one. Anytime somebody is concerned somebody may harm themselves or others, getting a professional assessment is a wise thing to do and I am not in any way discouraging this. Safety is always a number one priority.
In each of these situations, I sent the distraught person home where they could be surrounded by loved ones. They may have wanted to die in their shock and pain, but none that I assessed were actually suicidal. In some cultures it is normal to spend days rocking and wailing when a loved one dies. Grief needs outlets and by nature we generally know how to express our pain in ways that will ultimately help us heal from it.
My belief is that it is important to let someone express the full range of their grief when they first hear the terrible news, without truncating the process with a pill, but I’m always open to the possibility I may be wrong about some things. People who receive terrible news may need something on a short-term basis to help them. There are times somebody benefits from taking antidepressants for a certain time period, to navigate prolonged grief and continue to be able to function. Hopefully counseling is a part of that.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a pharmaceutical solution that can take away grief without taking away other things. Grief we can get through. Numb is not an appropriate stopping point, although some people do choose to settle into numb through various forms of avoidance.
Be aware, on the other end of the continuum, some don’t cry easily when they experience a loss, and that is okay, also. I’m one of those. The more loss I experience, the less I have the capacity to experience feelings related to shock. I move to resignation, if not acceptance faster. Yet I believe it is important to actively grieve and I want to express pain in ways that promote healing.
After my dad died, and I still hadn’t cried, I loaded my i-Pod with songs that touched the part of me that missed him. Listening to the songs, I was able to grieve. If you need a catalyst for grief and the person you lost was a male, I find Go Rest High On That Mountain by Vince Gill to be a particularly powerful grieving song. A video of Vince Gill performing this song is available on youtube (here).
What to do when somebody you care about is going through a profound loss? Know they are in a different world than you are. Your words may not even be registering. Understand that people need breaks from feeling the pain and that is a process that occurs naturally. If somebody has had a profound loss and they are on the job, I don’t mention it when they are compartmentalizing their grief to focus on work. I’ll let them know at some point my thoughts are with them, but I’m mindful of the place and time.
Know that even during the initial, most difficult phases of grief, people have the capacity for laughter. We’re just built that way. There needs to be occasional relief from the heaviness of the situation. This does not mean joshing somebody out of their pain, or ignoring it. But, you don’t need to be the 100th person they talk to that day and the next day and the next and the next who is somber and referencing their loss. Let them have breaks from that.
I recently made small talk with somebody I don’t know all that well but who I do know recently received devastating news about their health. I know they have a large support network of concerned friends and family. In my mind, I was giving them a break by talking about something other than their tragedy. It is equally possible that my interlude was just one more surreal experience for them as they walk through a personal hell, “My world just ended and this person is talking to me about kittens…”
I am not advocating going on at any length in the vein of inanity or chatter with somebody who is grieving. Any imposed interludes should be kept brief. I don’t advocate making small talk when news of a tragedy is fresh and the person is still trying to grasp the situation. That is a time for just sitting with them and helping to absorb the energy and shock. They need the space to process and try to fathom their experience, not make small talk.
Give the individual or family food. Something easy to heat and easy to get down, like lasagna or casseroles. Carbohydrates are good at times like these. Not sweets or chips. They won’t want to munch. They aren’t going to feel like eating. Just put a plate in front of them when you know they haven’t eaten. They will often go ahead and eat what is placed in front of them, even when they say they don’t want it. Same with water. Staying hydrated is always important.
If you are an intimate enough friend that they don’t mind you going through their things and accept your offer, it would be nice to help with household chores like laundry, cleaning and yard work during the first few weeks. Your griever may be one that wants to keep busy in the early stage of grief and doesn’t need or want help, although that is rare. They may want to be left alone, although that is rare during the initial stage of grief, also. Their wishes should be respected, of course, with the caveat they may be too shocked to have a clue what they want. However, they will usually be able to express what they don’t want, if there is something they really don’t want.
Food will continue to be an issue for a few weeks, although that kind of support understandably gradually disappears usually in the first week. Everybody is busy and people have limited resources of time and money. But, those are the things that are most helpful.
It is fine to let somebody know you are sorry for their loss. If you experienced something similar, it can be okay to let them know that, only to the extent needed to let them know you understand. The experience needs to be fairly similar to resonate. Losing a pet is hard, but when somebody told me they understood what I was going through when my dad died because their dog had just died, it didn’t resonate for me. Nor did it bother me. I knew they were being kind and loved their dog. When my former partner’s son died, it was meaningful when somebody shared they had lost a teenager and offered their support.
Don’t avoid talking about their loved one. They are thinking about their loved one constantly, you aren’t going to bruise them by mentioning the person. People generally appreciate hearing memories of their loved one, and over time want to know people remember them.
Original Thoughts on Grief, Part 1
by Janice Maddox
There are two types of deaths. The deaths we know are coming, as when a loved one has been struggling with a terminal illness, and those we don’t see coming. News of the unexpected loss comes with a profound sense of shock, the emotional equivalent of a nuclear bomb that flattens an entire city.
In the case of somebody who is terminally ill, people are generally not as prepared as they think they are. There is still the transition of having somebody there, then not there. But the death can often be seen as a blessing and end to somebody’s suffering. After the terminally ill person passes, there is often a need to process a sense of failure or guilt for not having always been a perfect caretaker or companion to the ill person.
It is impossible to get things perfectly right over time when taking care of somebody who is ill. Our best intentions can backfire in various ways and there are multiple opportunities to do things clumsily.
Caretakers are prone to have episodes of being irritable or snappish, over the course of a lengthy illness. I think this is part of navigating stages of grief while the person is still alive. Anger is a part of the grief process. Those episodes come back to haunt people, and are a reason to figure out a way to get breaks and find emotional support if you are a caretaker or have a terminally ill loved one.
The experience of regret is best summed up by a bronze sculpture created by artist Tim Holmes. The sculpture depicts a man holding a shot gun and leaning over the body of an angel with his head bowed. The statue is called “I Shot an Angel by Mistake.” It is clear the man would give anything to undo his actions.
Some would argue that all grief is essentially the same, but I’ve found there are differences for each experience. In navigating the death of parents, we are coming to terms with no longer having parents and all that implies. There can be a coming to terms with the fact some issues will never be resolved. It’s an existential crisis, to an extent, in addition to a loss of a loved one.
The death of a spouse is the loss of a life partner and the grieving of expectations and dreams around that relationship. If you had children with the person, it’s feeling the loss for your children, on top of your loss. An identity crisis can be part of the experience, when a loss involves the death of the self we were and entirely new constructs have to be created.
It should be noted we do become stronger in broken places, as scar tissue thickens the skin in an area that’s been cut. The Anatomy of Sports Injuries, by Brad Walker, states, If allowed to heal completely, a fracture will usually heal to become stronger than before the injury. In fractures that are compound or misaligned, surgical pinning may be required to stabilize the bone until it heals. We become stronger. Sometimes we need help.
I’ve experienced the unexpected death of a partner’s child, the death of a terminally ill spouse, and death of parents. I’ve learned when there is a loss of a child everybody says “I wouldn’t be able to handle that if it happened to me.” Two weeks before the loss of my partner’s child, I looked at him and thought, “Nothing better ever happen to (his son), he wouldn’t be able to handle it.” My partner and his son were close. His son was everything to him.
There are not special people chosen to go through these things because they have a special capacity for handling it. We get through what we have to get through, forever changed, but eventually not broken. My mother had four children that were killed in a fire with a husband who also died before my older sister and I came along. We get through what we have to get through. Sometimes, there isn’t a choice.
The closest we can come to grasping this kind of loss without going through it is to conceptualize it in mythological terms which involve rivers to hell and back. In Greek mythology, there are five rivers that separate the land of the living from Hades, the land of the dead.*
1.Acheron – the river of woe;
2.Cocytus – the river of lamentation;
3.Phlegethon – the river of fire;
4.Lethe – the river of forgetfulness;
5.Styx – the river of hate.
Charon (also known as Kharon) is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the deceased between the two worlds. Heroes, such as Orpheus, Aeneas, Dionysus, and Psyche have been required to journey to the underworld and return, still alive, conveyed by the boat of Charon.
Heroes bring back treasure from their journey to the underworld. The awareness you get turns out to be a treasure. A treasure anybody would trade to have their loved one back, but still; a greater capacity for compassion. Sometimes the weird freedom a sense of nothing left to lose can bring.
The topic of this article was supposed to be about how to respond when somebody you care about has a significant loss, and I discuss this more below. There are no right words, really, at times like these, but there are wrong words. People will go on saying the wrong words until the end of time, and that’s okay. Everybody does the best they can.
Next week, part 2
*Article “Styx (River)” created on 03 March 1997; last modified on 27 December 1998 (Revision 2). 329 words.
Janice Maddox, Copyright 2011