Loss is part of life. Losing a loved one sets off the experience of grief in different ways for each person, and honoring that individual process is the best way to deal with it in ourselves and others.
Our culture isn’t quite comfortable with grief. In the article “Understanding Grief” in The New York Times, Jane Brody says two new books by psychotherapists have a common message: “Accept whatever form grief takes.”
There’s no official time limit to process grief. Some people may appear to hold up amazingly well immediately following the loss of a loved one, then the outer appearance may begin to unravel after months or a year, after the initial shock wears off and the person who died is deeply missed in the course of daily life. Some people may immediately fall apart emotionally and physically. Some create memorials, foundations or scholarships to do something positive and memorable with the energy of grief. Some widows or widowers think they should wait a “respectable year” before engaging in another relationship, while others process the grief by feeling pressure to make the most of every day.
In the book, “It’s OK that You’re Not OK,” by Megan Devine the message is that it’s wrong to encourage mourners to move too quickly through pain. It’s important to experience the pain, because if it’s ignored or denied it can create other problems. “The way to survive grief is by allowing pain to exist, not in trying to cover it up or rush through it,” says Devine.
The book, “Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving,” by Julia Samuel, who works with bereaved families at the National Health Service in England, reminds us that, “The process cannot be hurried by friends and family. Recovery and adjustment can take much longer than most people realize.”
The most important way a family member of friend can offer support to someone who is grieving is to listen, no matter how many times the person wants to tell about their loved one.
Devine says encouraging a mourner to “get over it” causes suffering, when the goal is to minimize suffering. Ignoring or minimizing the person’s grief can add to their suffering.
The way to offer comfort, says Devine, is to “bear witness, offer friendship without probing questions or unsolicited advice.”
One bereaved mother in Samuel’s book offers this truth: “You never ‘get over it,’ you ‘get on with it,’ and you never ‘move on,’ but you ‘move forward.’ ”
Each person can turn inward and identify people, places or activities that seem to increase the suffering, and find others that seem to relieve suffering. The guidance is to choose those that bend toward healing, like being in an environment that offers comfort, perhaps in nature or in a support group, or journaling to express the loss.
The most important guidance is to keep the experience of grief in perspective. “Grief is not a problem to be solved or resolved,” Brody points out as the main message shared by the authors of both books. “It’s a process to be tended and lived through in whatever form and however long it may take.”
While new insights to help deal with grief and comfort the grieving are important, we can always gain wisdom from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the 1969 breakthrough book “On Death and Dying,” which brought the subject into the public conversation. Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief.
“The five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - are part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the ones we lost,” said Kubler-Ross.
Her conversations with the dying revealed these stages, but they have since been adopted by many as applying to the survivors of a loved one’s death. We can continue to insight about grief from Kubler-Ross, who wrote in 1975: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.”
Brody, Jane E., “Understanding Grief,” The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2018
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, “On Death and Dying: The Five Stages of Grief,”
EKR Foundation, 2017