A Catholic Monthly Magazine


Victor Parachin

Some Common-Sense Answers

After her spouse died, a woman wrote in her journal: “I feel like I'm a hampster on a wheel going round and round but going nowhere. Even though Steve died ten months ago, I still feel like it happened only yesterday. I just can't stop thinking about him. What is this strange thing called grief?”

Sooner or later, everyone loses someone they love, to death. Yet, most people are unprepared for the tidal wave of grief which follows a loss. Here are some common-sense answers about grief.

Q. What is grief?

A. Grief is the emotional reaction that follows loss. The most common cause of grief is the death of a loved one. However, there are many other losses which trigger grief – separation, divorce, disability, job loss, etc.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of grief?

A. These are some of the most common and normal aspects of grief:

• Conflicting and confusing emotions such as sadness, depression, anger, guilt, regret, longing, despair.

• Death imagery – thinking you hear or see the person who died.

• Sleep disorder – sleeping too much or unable to sleep properly.

• Appetite disruption – not wanting to eat or overeating.

• Difficulty focusing and making decisions.

• Physical symptoms – headache, back pain, nausea.

• Social withdrawal – not wanting to be with people or at social events.

It must be emphasised these are normal aspects of grief but they are not permanent. The intensity eases for the majority of grievers who adjust and adapt.

Q. How long does grief last?

A. Generally, most people experience grief relief within 30 months. However, the duration of grief does not have a fixed end-point. Michael C. Miller, MD., editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter writes, “grief doesn't neatly conclude at the six month or one-year mark. Although it may persist, grief does usually soften and change over time. How this goes will be influenced by your emotional style, the nature of your support system, and the culture you are part of. Usually, the raw, all-consuming shock of early grief will ebb slowly within weeks or months. Gradually, at their own pace, most people do find themselves adjusting to the loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.”

Q. A friend told me I should be over this by now. Am I grieving incorrectly?

A. You are not grieving incorrectly. Moving through grief takes much longer than most people assume. Harold Ivan Smith, a bereavement expert and author of several grief books, says grievers live in a “get-over-it, move-on-with-it world.” Many friends “assume a grief should last about thirty days. Some of our friends may have never experienced the death of a close family member; they have no real understanding of what you are experiencing,” Dr. Smith says. Focus on your grief. Ignore any comments from those who want to rush you through the process.

Q. Are there stages of grief?

A. No, but there are generally four tasks which need to be accomplished in order to have a successful grief recovery. They are:

• Accept the reality of the loss. This means fully understanding your loved one has died, is not and will no longer be part of your daily life.

• Allow yourself to feel the pain of the loss. Pain is part of healing. When there is a loss to death, grievers must allow themselves to experience the variety of intense feelings connected to it.

• Adjust to a new reality. Death brings new changes and challenges. Grievers will have to take on new roles.

• Adapt to a different life. Grievers need to move on, loosen ties to the deceased, retain memories, but invest their time and energy in new relationships.

Q. Why do I find myself dreading holidays?

A. Most grievers find that it is not only holidays which are difficult because there is an ‘empty chair,’ but also anniversaries, birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day and so on. Here are some effective ways to manage these special days:

• Plan ahead. How will you spend the day? With whom?

• Talk about your deceased loved one.

This will let others know that you want to hear his/her name and to talk about that person.

• Establish personal priorities. Decide what you want to do, how you wish to celebrate, and with whom you wish to spend time. Follow your instincts.

• Express your feelings. If the holidays make you more weepy, then cry. If you feel the need to talk about the loss, then find a good friend who will listen.

• Value your memories. You loved, and the price of losing a loved one is pain. Cherish the time you had together and value your precious memories, which can never be taken away from you.

• Reach out to others. Take the focus off yourself and your pain by helping another person.

• Avoid isolating yourself in grief. Just because you are in pain, do not cut yourself off from others. Stay in touch. Keep communication open with family, friends and colleagues. Accept some invitations for social events, even if you do not feel like it.

• Be hopeful and optimistic. Many find that the holidays or special days are not as bad as they had anticipated.

Q. I've been told not to ‘get emotional.’ Is it wrong to show sadness?

A. Feelings need to be acknowledged, not pushed away. Do not allow others to dictate how you will feel and what emotions you can express. The death of a loved one impacts our emotions. We feel sad. We feel vulnerable. These are normal grief responses. As various feelings and emotions come up, accept them with compassion and kindness rather than with fear and frustration.

Q. Is it OK to cry?

A. Yes, it is, though some grievers hesitate to cry because it frightens others, and even themselves. Writer Cindy Horyza shares this insight about tears: “People are so afraid that if they start to cry they won't quit. Trust me, no one has ever died of crying. Flowers need lots of water to bloom and sometimes we do, too.”

Q. What can I do to help myself get through grief?

A. The best things you can do include:

• Physical exercise -- go to the gym, take a long walk, run, or bike ride. Physical activity sheds stress as well as weight.

• Eat balanced, nutritious meals, staying away from 'junk' foods. Avoid alcohol and drugs, which simply delay grief recovery.

• Exercise your faith. Take time to read and reflect on scriptures such as Psalm 147:3 – God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds; Psalm 34:18 – The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (New International Version). Take time for silent meditation. Make time for prayer and don't hesitate to pray for yourself, asking God to give you daily strength.

Q. How can I help a grieving friend?

A. One woman, who experienced the death of a child, answers, “I have learned that there are many 'right' things to do. But there is only one grievous and commonplace 'wrong' thing to do, and that is nothing.” As soon as you know a friend has lost a loved one, be there. Listen with compassion. Avoid offering trite clichés. Here are ways of speaking helpfully to a griever:

• Rather than saying Time heals everything, say This must feel as though the pain will never end.

• Rather than saying Try to see the good in this situation, say This must be very painful right now.

• Rather than saying Your loved one is better off, say Your loved one is no longer suffering but I'm sure you are.

• Rather than saying God never gives us more than we can handle, say This must be very hard for you.

• Rather than saying Don't cry, say It's OK to cry.

• Rather than saying I know just how you feel, say I can't imagine how you must feel.

• Rather than saying Everything's going to be OK, say I want to help any way I can.

• Rather than saying Call me if there's anything I can do, say I'll call later this week to see if there is any way I can help.

• Rather than saying, This was for the best, say It's hard to know why this happened.

Q. When is mourning finished?

A. In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Dr. William Worden offers this answer: “One benchmark of a completed grief reaction is when the person is able to think of the deceased without pain. There is always a sense of sadness when you think of someone that you have loved and lost, but it is a different kind of sadness – it lacks the wrenching quality it previously had. Also, mourning is finished when a person can reinvest his or her emotions back into life and into the living.”

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