As the december holiday season approaches, we want and expect it to be a time of joy, warmth, and intimacy with family and friends. But for some, the ending of the year brings a keen awareness of losses, regrets, and unfinished business. The darkening days can lead to a darker mood and thoughts of loved ones we have lost, of opportunities we may have missed, of times when we failed to succeed.
If you or one of your clients is struggling to cope with grief, now or at any other season of the year, the advice that follows may help ease the pain.
Q: My clients recently lost their daughter, an Air National Guard aircraft technician, to an IED in Iraq. As soon as he heard, the father went to her bedroom, boxed up her belongings, and changed the furniture around. The mother freaked out when she discovered this. At the funeral, they were still too angry to speak to each other. When they came to my office yesterday to discuss their insurance, they began to fight again. The dad says it’s time to bury or scatter their daughter’s ashes, while the mother insists on keeping the urn on the mantle. Will this situation resolve itself, or can I do something to help reconcile this couple?
A: These parents are wracked with overwhelming pain, and each of them has reverted to his or her own primitive survival mode in order to deal with it.
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The father is trying to “be a man” and move stoically on by erasing painful memories of his deceased daughter. The mother, in more typical female fashion, wants to preserve the memory of her child and hold onto reminders of her in any way she can.
Your client couple badly needs counseling about their damaged relationship as well as their grief. Perhaps they can find this support in a single therapy professional. Alternatively, each of them could consult a grief specialist for assistance in coping with their dreadful loss. Then they can take on couples therapy together to help heal the rift caused by this unbearable pain.
People sometimes react to the loss of a loved one by pushing other family members and friends away, unconsciously thinking, “I can’t bear to be close to anyone right now. What if I lose them, too?” This irrational behavior can of course create what they most fear: a loss of love and connection. So if I were you, I would gently steer this couple in the direction of help before the break in their relationship gets any deeper.
Q: My wife died quite suddenly of pancreatic cancer five months ago. There was an outpouring of sympathy and casseroles that lasted for a few weeks and then dried up, as though everyone assumed I’d gotten over it. I try not to let on that it’s still a struggle to get out of bed every morning, or that I weep whenever something reminds me of her. Tell me, for heaven’s sake, when will I reach the “acceptance” stage of grieving and not feel so much pain?
A: I’m so sorry for your terrible loss, and I do understand what you’re facing. Our society tends to expect men to keep functioning during a tragedy like this and move right on as though nothing has changed, when in reality the mourning process has just begun. Being around the pain of grieving makes other people uncomfortable, so they often push for a return to “business as usual” before the mourner is emotionally ready.
To help give yourself the time and space you need to truly complete the mourning process, I would recommend joining a grief group led by a good therapy professional. These groups are everywhere; contact your nearest hospital or hospice if you need help finding one.
I’d also suggest that you talk to your wife when you are alone, and make space to “hear” her responses in your mind. A client of mine did this for many months after her husband died, lighting a candle to honor him during their “conversations.” By allowing her to cherish his spirit in her heart, this uniquely comforting practice helped her let go of her pain with greater ease and grace.
In my experience, it can take a good year or more for a bereaved person to return to any semblance of normalcy, although this varies for each individual. If you take time to acknowledge your anguish, it will gradually pass (or at least lessen). It’s when you try to push your grief away or rush through the mourning process that the pain will come back and hit you over the head when you least expect it.
Share your sorrow, anger, and loneliness with friends and loved ones who are willing to hear and help you. It’s better to connect with others than to isolate yourself. My best wishes for restorative healing and serenity in your life.
Q: My paraplanner and I just returned from the funeral of a 53-year-old client. His wife was dry-eyed and stoic during the entire service, while his ex-wife bawled her eyes out. We heard people whispering that the ex must really have loved him, but nobody commented on the widow’s grief. On the way back to the office, we realized that almost everyone smiles when they’re happy, but people don’t behave alike when they’re sad. Why is this?
A: It’s true: people exhibit a wide range of behaviors and emotions when it comes to grief. In our culture, at least, I believe it’s because many of us are told that the deceased is “happy now” or “in a better world,” so outpourings of sorrow seem somehow self-indulgent.
In her classic book On Death and Dying (Scribner, 1997), Elisabeth K? 1/4 bler-Ross outlined five stages of grief:
- Denial: This can’t be happening to me.
- Anger: I’m furious that this is happening to me!
- Bargaining: I promise to be a better person if this goes away.
- Depression: I don’t care any more. What’s the use?
- Acceptance: I’m ready to face what’s happened and resume living my life.
Although this framework has been useful in helping people recognize what stage they’re in at different times, the journey through grief is not predictable. People often skip stages or go forward and then back. Also, some people by their very nature grieve only privately. Others are helped to grieve by the presence of loved ones who are sympathetic to their pain. Everyone handles this grueling passage in her own particular way.