Sunday, June 29, 2008

Moving Toward Grief

The Western world is not a culture where grieving is well understood, let alone tolerated. I've heard of bereaved people going back to work 3 days after losing their spouse to be greeted by their boss saying, "well, you've had three days off, so you should be well over your grief by now." How people go back to work after 3 days is beyond me! I took a month off, and I probably should have taken more time. Ah well. Should-a, could-a, would-a, didn't-a!

It turns out that our modern culture of "get over grief fast" has very ancient roots, dating back to the Stoics. It is a myth that does not serve us well at all. Dr Alan D. Wolfelt talks about this bad advice in his book, Understanding Grief. He explains that grief is a collection of feelings that we need to experience, not a handicap that we must overcome.

When I became a widower, I did not know how to grieve, nor did I feel that I needed to. Deb had been sick with terminal cancer for 16 months before she died, and I felt I had done all my grieving during that time. What I found was that this myth of needing to get over grief fast helped me prolong my initial mourning by about 5 months. It wasn't until I started crying everywhere that I bothered learning what grief was and how to experience it.

Dr Wolfelt has some very good advice on how to counter this popular notion of grief. In my experience, it wasn't until I followed this kind of advice and faced my grief head-on that I began to heal. Read on:

[from pages 11-12]:

Myth #3: Move away from grief, not toward it.

Our Society often encourages prematurely moving away from grief instead of toward it. The result is that too many bereaved people either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means.

During ancient times, stoic philosophers encouraged their followers not to mourn, believing that self-control was the appropriate response to sorrow. Today, well-intentioned, but uninformed, relatives and friends still carry on this longheld tradition. While the outward expression of grief is a requirement for healing, to overcome society's powerful message which encourages repression can be difficult.

As a counselor, I am often asked, "How long should grief last?" This question directly relates to our culture's impatience with grief and the desire to move people away from the experience of mourning. Shortly after the death, for example, the bereaved are expected to "be back to normal."

Bereaved persons who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as "weak," "crazy," or "self-pitying." The subtle message is "shape up and get on with life." The reality is disturbing: far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.

These messages, unfortunately, encourage you to repress thoughts and feelings surrounding the death. By doing so, you may refuse to cry. And refusing to allow tears, suffering in silence, and "being strong" are often considered admirable behaviors. Many people have internalized society's message that mourning should be done quietly, quickly. and efficiently. Don't let this happen to you.

After the death of someone loved, you also may respond to the question "How are you?" with the benign response "Im fine." In essence, though, you are saying to the world, "I'm not mourning." Friends, family and co-workers may encourage this stance. Why? Because they don't want to talk about the death. So if you demonstrate an absence of mourning behavior, it tends to be more socially acceptable.

This collaborative pretense about mourning, however, does not meet your needs as a bereaved person. When your grief is ignored or minimized, you will feel further isolated in your journey. Ultimately. you will experience the onset of the "Am I going crazy?" syndrome. To mask or move away from your grief creates anxiety, confusion, and depression. If you receive little or no social recognition related to your pain, you will probably begin to fear that your thoughts and feelings are abnormal.

Remember — society will often encourage you to prematurely move away from your grief. You must continually remind yourself that leaning toward the pain will facilitate the eventual healing.

Once I started acutely grieving at around six months out, I was acutely aware of society's disapproval and wish that I would be over my grief. However, I knew that I needed to grieve, and if the world wasn't going to support me, at least I could support myself. And when I wished that society would be more supportive of me, I kept in mind a quote attributed by Ghandi:

Be the change you want to see in the world.


Anonymous said...

My husband killed himself July 14 of this year. Yes, a selfish act leaving behind devastation of a wife (me) who adored him and two teenage children who worshipped him. I just want to say if your spouse is depressed or suffers pain of any kind, please get them to a therapist, psychiatrist, let it be their idea or whatever works, but do something. Be proactive. I am the devastation left behind trying to make sense of it. It will be some time.

Anonymous said...

My husband was killed in the war 5 years ago and I lost our two year old son due to illness 3 years ago. I'm realizing just now that "getting over it" is not something I ever need or want to do. The pressure from family and friends make me feel like I need to move on and stop grieving, but others who have lost, have taught me different. I can get angry, and display different emotions, talk about my loved ones, and still be normal and sane. I can say things like I'd rather be in Heaven with my loved ones than be here on earth, without being rediculed. Going in and out of depression is normal. Living with grief everyday is reality. You will have your ups and downs.
It never goes away completely, but you learn to deal with it and go on with your life the best way you know how. When family and friends say, you better talk to a therapist, most likely you don't. Instead call a friend who "gets it" and has had a similar experience. Remember you are the only one who can change your mood and life. There are others out there you will support you. In my experience, support groups are much better than talking to any therapist. The only ones who are going to be able to understand are people who have had a similar experience. That's the reality and the step towards healing.

Anonymous said...

My wife of 41 years died on the 5th of September from multiple complication (vulvar cancer, heart conditions, severe undiagnosed pain in lower back kidney problems). It was a short trip from first diagnosis of the cancer until she passed away (less than three months, of which during the final three weeks she was hospitalized. I didn't realize I was running on nerve for about 60 days until after the memorial services, but now I am having severe anxiety, and a severe sleep problem (Ambien works for 2 1/2 hours, Xanax about 3 1/2) not over her death, but the multiple issues involving property, money, lack of preplanning... I find I cannot cry and think it may in part be the AD my doctor put me on, but also that I'm hiding from the grief by using all the other issues for avoidance ...

Anonymous said...

I lost my husband (we were together twenty years since we were 18 years old) three years ago to rare, aggressive, and terminal cancer. I am a counsellor, however I continue to walk around most days feeling like someone has punched me in the stomach. Coupled with this is the anger and guilt that I feel about being left behind to raise three small kids (one with autism) with no money in the bank - as he spent recklessly -like there was no tomorrow- and did not have any life insurance to help with bills/funeral costs. I myself have a tone of life insurance, but no life.
I am a so called "professional" who feels like a phony most days.

Vic said...

Hi Unknown, I'm very sorry for your loss.

I'm reading a book right now by Byron Katie called "Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life." Because you are a counsellor yourself, you can likely relate to her style and message.

Three years is a long time to grieve, although I certainly get that three kids, one with special needs, complicates things.

Is there a local grief peer-support group in your area? I found one close to me, and they were incredibly helpful. I fully believe that they helped me get through my grief journey in one piece. They all understood what I was going through because they were or had been in my shoes themselves. Just a thought.

May you find peace,