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Grief Support

Learning from Grief

Mary Ellen Trahan, Ph.D.

  In the April issue of West Georgia Woman I shared the story of my family's tragedy in 2012 and reflected on my own experience of grief as it has unfolded during the past four years. While I appreciate the way the cultural story of the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- points to real aspects of the experience, I find that the road map that promises a successful end to the pain of grief fails to capture the jumbled complexity and actual overwhelming disorientation of grief. Tidy resolution, achieving a return to the pre-loss status quo, "moving on" as quickly as possible are ideals that guide much of the current thinking about bereavement. For me, though, these ideals miss the mark; we can learn much about life and death when we give grief time and space, when instead of forcing or manipulating the process we ride the waves, finding our unique tempo.

  Grief shows us our deep connection with one another. Much of the time we think of ourselves in terms of our separateness; we value independence and we take self-reliance to be a sure sign of maturity. When life is humming along even our interactions -- our relationships -- are encounters balancing closeness and independence. Grief melts our belief in self-containment. When someone dies a loved one often says that a part of them has died as well. And that's the truth. When we lose someone life doesn't go on as it always did, only slightly altered by the fact that someone is now missing. Life is completely altered because our very selves develop their particular shape through mutual love and care for each other. When my sister, Rose, was not dead but truly missing because she was in a coma for two weeks and her survival was in question, I stood by her bed, willing her to live. Memories flooded into the space between us, waves of deep connection I didn't resist. When we allow ourselves to patiently settle into loss as an experience of profound connection and shared vulnerability, seeds of greater kindness and compassion for ourselves and others might begin to sprout. Sadness and confusion don't magically dissolve, but leaning into connection rather than separateness sheds its own kind of light on life.

  If grief is the experience of loss, mourning is the process of remembering. We remember and celebrate the person who has departed. Obituaries and eulogies are formal expressions of our desire to remember and celebrate. Less formally, we tell stories and carry the person in our hearts; even though they are no longer in the physical world, they are still with us. Mourning can't be hurried; it is a process that takes time. A gold nugget at the heart of the process is awareness of the absolute uniqueness of each and every one of us. We can't be replaced and we can't be repeated. The crushing heartbreak of loss stems, in part, from our encounter with the reality that a one-time-only spark of life -- our loved one -- has been extinguished. The potential gift embedded in the heartbreak is a gradual but steady opening to and appreciation for the preciousness of life.

  Even though they are well-intended, we often find little comfort in platitudes. Uniqueness has a lot to do with this. People offer consolation in words such as "She is in a better place or she isn't suffering anymore or it's God's will." These general statements could apply to anyone; we want to ask how they describe -- if they even do -- the person we've lost. Hoping to ease our suffering, people say, "God never gives us more than we can handle, don't let your feelings get the better of you, be strong, move on." While I appreciate the intention, I wonder how anyone can know whether these sentiments apply to my unique relationship with my unique loved one?

  If platitudes fail to bring comfort what does? Recognition that death is not a deviation but a normal part of life. The discomfort that so often accompanies the experience of being in the presence of a grieving person softens with this knowledge about life and death. We can be much more skillful in our support when we can truly listen to the grieving person without trying to change or fix them -- letting them talk about the deceased, letting them talk about this new form of life without the deceased. We can better discern real needs and real opportunities for consolation when we don't let our own fear of death or worry that we might "upset" the grieving person get in the way. We might find ourselves being cautious about intruding or concerned about being clumsy. Such kindness is admirable. It helps to remember, though, that there is a distinction between that thoughtfulness and shying away because of our own uneasiness. I know as I grieve and mourn, I often deliberately dip into memories of shared times, savoring the details even in my sadness. Other times, images spontaneously appear and I let them unfold even as I wish I had known "then" how many times would be "last times." When others can be with me in living with the reality of my loss -- the pain and the confusion -- and revel with me in the fullness of my loved ones, together we can celebrate life even in the face of death.

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