In this issue I want to write in the name and to all bereaved people everywhere about different kinds of grief, mourning time and how every one of us can support friends and relatives who are suffering a big loss.
Society and Stigma
First of all I want to emphasize that for me there are no such things like stigmatized or socially unspeakable or even negated losses. I’m coming from a country (Germany) where people are grieving miscarriages, stillbirths and SIDS, have funerals and erect little gravestones for their deceased children/babies/embryos. There are open discussions about suicide and I have counseled three women there; two of them had lost their sons in the ages of 23 and 35 and one of them lost her husband. They didn’t come to me because they couldn’t talk openly about this matter but because they felt guilty of not being able to prevent it or see it coming, although their relatives and friends had already told them that they couldn’t have done anything.
A loss is a loss and is very traumatic for the survivors and no matter what kind of death it is, somebody is bereaved of someone (s)he loved. How can anybody on this planet dare to judge about how appropriate a certain death is in the eyes of society? Who is free of any prejudice and completely perfect may throw the first stone.
Different kinds of grief and mourning time (length of grief)
I want to mention the most common kinds of grief, my own experiences and the experiences with some of my clients.
- 1. Normal grief (I would change it to “holistic grieving process”)
I don’t like the word “normal” when it is to describe a process that is absolutely different from person to person, as we all are unique in our character, beliefs, personal experiences, cultural and religious background, our cognitions, emotions and behavior. In addition to this we are attached to a certain person who is dying or died in a very special way. All those factors influence how we grief.
There are certain myths about grieving that are different from culture to culture. In Germany the minimum time to grief is one year, but nobody would judge or condemn somebody who needs more time in severe cases (losing a child/parent/spouse through sudden death). Here in Canada I hear people say “Now it’s two months ago that his spouse died; he should get over it.” Especially the part of Germany (Bavaria) I’m coming from is influenced by Italy and France. In both countries there’s loud groaning, yearning and crying during the funeral; emotions are expressed openly and not only by the family member but by everybody attending the funeral including the male gender. Tears are not a sign of weakness but of empathy for the deceased. Here in Canada I hear a lot of people saying that they must be strong and the easiest way to get over the pain is to take a pain killer (alcohol, antidepressants etc.).
I can only say: Please take your time, there’s no “normal” timetable. Be patient and allow yourself to go through this process naturally. It is necessary to go through the painful time and face all the emotions that appear from grieving. Admitting true feelings helps everybody much more than playing the brave role. Be patient with yourself, your friends and family!
The process of grief is often compared with a roller coaster and I only can agree with that. There are no stages in a certain sequence and therefore I prefer J. William Worden’s theory about the tasks of grief.
Like with everything in life it doesn’t make sense to wait passively for the hard times to be over. We all have to actively work on all the issues that are presented to us in order to deal with during our life cycle.
According to Worden there are 4 tasks to mourning, which may take place in any sequence but must all be worked through in order to heal or cure from the loss.
The reality of death is often denied shortly after the loved one died and there’s so much confusion going on in our minds that we should not be too hard on ourselves. But in the end we have to accept this reality, otherwise we can’t move on. (Acceptance task)
The pain of grief seems to be unbearable in the beginning but it is necessary for healing to work through it. Try not to hinder the mourning process by avoiding painful thoughts and emotions. (Pain task)
You have to cope with the changed situation and adjust to an environment where the deceased is missing. It may be inevitable to develop new skills or take on new roles. (Adjustment task)
And last but not least you have to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.
For me this task means that I integrate the deceased into my life in a different way. I’m grateful for all the gifts I have received during the time we shared together in means of new points of views, values, beliefs and skills and they will live on within me. Then there are a lot of wonderful memories from shared moments that may peacefully appear at certain times and when they do I hug and thank my loved one for those in my thoughts/imagination. I also think that giving him/her a special place in my heart is a nice way to install an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. (Relocation task)
- 2. We call it Traumatic grief when somebody’s death is very sudden, by accident.
I remember when I was called in the middle of the night and told that my father had an accident and was brought to the hospital with a twice fractured skull. I knew from the voice of the doctor on the phone immediately that there’s no hope at all. I put off the receiver and screamed “No, no, no, please Daddy don’t die.” I was not allowed to mourn the way I wanted to do it and my grief wasn’t resolved until many years later when I was enrolled in a holistic health education. This death was awakening for me and made me aware of how unpredictable life is, how fast death can happen and that I can lose a loved person in my life within seconds.
- 3. We call it Complicated/unresolved grief (I personally prefer the word “unresolved”) when somebody got stuck in one of the grief tasks.
With me that happened when I was given Valium by my ex-husband to “shut up” and not scream anymore, the funeral institute not allowing me to see my father again and my mother’s threatening me with bad consequences if I would dare to join the funeral visitors in the postmortem gathering.
After that I experienced this kind of grief with two clients who approached me here in Canada. One client came with migraines and we found out that she didn’t have the chance to say good-bye to her mother and therefore kept a part of her in form of severe headaches that slowly disappeared after celebrating a good-bye ritual and allowing the pain by crying for almost an hour.
The second client came with shoulder pains from a car accident, but was examined several times by different doctors who all couldn’t find something physical. During the session we discovered that in this accident two friends were killed and her best friend ended paralyzed in a wheelchair. After working through all the pain of grief the physical pain disappeared too.
- 4. We call it Anticipated grief when there’s severe illness and long suffering evolved before dying.
A client came to me two months after he lost his wife. He said it wouldn’t be the pain he’s afraid of but meanwhile he thinks he’s not behaving “normal” because all he hears from friends and relatives is. “You knew that she’s going to die for the whole year you were caring for her each day at the hospital. You already had the time to grief and prepare for death. How can it still be so overwhelming that you can’t keep continence?” or “It’s already two months ago and you, as a man, are still crying all day long.”
He excused himself for starting to cry once again and I assured him that everything is absolutely o.k. with him. In the first session I only sat there and listened, sometimes holding his hand to show him that I care. At the end I did some Reiki for him and gave him something to read about grief between the sessions.
What are normal reactions to grief?
Immediately after the loss there’s often numbness and empty feelings, your mind maybe to confused to think one clear thought and there may be physical pain in your chest or stomach. There may be uncontrollable fits of crying and you can’t fall asleep at night. You may want to withdraw from the world and not listen to anything people say to you. You probably don’t have appetite and feel tired (fatigue) all the time and in all the depression want to die as well. There’s no “normal” reaction to grief because the death of a loved person is so agitating, so deeply hurting and totally overwhelming that everything is possible even if you never experienced it before.
How can we help the bereaved?
The most important help is listening. Just sit with the grieving person and listen empathetically. Whenever you feel the person wants to be touched hold her/his hand or even let him/her cry while holding her/him in your arms and let her/him know –without words – you’re there for her/him and caring and that (s)he can feel safe in showing all her/his emotions.
For the first time talking really isn’t important at all. Go for a walk in nature; just walk on the bereaved person’s side in silence. I remember my mother’s funeral. I had written a poem for her. Walking behind the urn I started to cry and whispered to Michael (my husband) “I can’t speak.” He took my hand and pressed it firmly and said “You can”. I read my poem and felt so peaceful and grateful afterwards. There are the little gestures that help much more than giving good advice or long explanations a grieving person can’t handle at this time. Meanwhile my hair stands on end whenever I hear the sentence “Everything’s going to be fine!” Nothing’s going to be fine in those moments short after the death of someone we love and we also don’t want to hear that somebody is sorry because we don’t feel understood at this time.
So for all the bereaved I ask you kindly: Please just accept us as we are with all our pain and depression! Give us the time to heal at our very own unique pace! Thank you, God bless you!