When We Lose Those We Love
Larry Beall, Ph.D.
In Iraq there is more loss, than the news can portray. If you haven’t lost a family member or friend, you probably know someone who has. Some of our deepest and most painful feelings as members of the human family are those of grief. Grief is complicated suffering. It is made up of sadness, distress, anger, anxiety, emptiness, helplessness, loneliness, fatigue, yearning, possible relief, frustration, loss, guilt, self-doubt, unfairness, numbness, and other feelings that seem to stretch us beyond what we can endure. Grief affects not only our feelings, but our physical sensations, our thoughts, and our behaviors. Grief affects our whole self. In this article I will focus on how to deal with your own grief and to help others deal with theirs.
It is important to remember that grief is natural and it is necessary. If we try to deny it or escape from it, it becomes for us a bigger problem. We may bury our feelings, but they remain alive and exert an influence on us. When we break a bone it must be set and kept immobile while it heals. If these conditions aren’t met, broken bone will not heal and can cause one to become crippled. Likewise, when there is a wound in the body steps must be taken to stop the bleeding, to keep it clean, and to maintain conditions that allow the wound to heal drawing on the body’s miraculous resources. If the wound is ignored and not properly cared for, it can become infected and may even lead to death. We are more than a physical body. We are also a soul, and when we lose someone we love our soul is wounded. Just because we don’t see the physical signs of the wound, does not mean the wound is not just as real as a physical wound. In some ways the reality of the suffering is more real than that of the body, because it involves the body and soul. It is important not to deny the reality of the pain of grief. It is a deep soul wound and it is a wound that requires certain work or tasks of us, certain help from others, and time to heal. Working through our grief is called grieving or mourning.
1. Recognizing the Seriousness of the Grief Wound. When a wound is serious there is a temptation to try to deny how bad it is. When someone dies, sometimes it feels like it really didn’t happen, and we want to go on believing that it didn’t. To begin to heal from grief, it is necessary to first face the reality that the loved one is dead, gone, and will not return. This may seem obvious to you. It is easy to get lost in a fantasy that life is the same by denying this person is gone. You may try to hold on to them in different ways. You may deny the truth of the information about how they died or you may deny how important the person was to you. You may try to escape the pain of their loss through drugs or alcohol. You may allow yourself to stay numb instead of feeling. I am not suggesting that you allow the pain to paralyze you or to keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities to others. I am suggesting that with others you trust, you start allowing the facts and feelings of the loss to be expressed and explained, to keep it from being buried deep inside. For feelings to be expressed and explained there needs to be someone to care, to listen, and to not judge.
Suggestions for the Helper: Help the survivor of the loss talk about the loss. Help them deal with basic questions that keep the reality of the loss on the surface where it can be dealt with.
The what, where, when, how, and who, questions help. What happened when he or she died? Where did the death occur? Where were you when you heard about it? When did it happen? When did you hear of it? How did it happen? How did you learn about it? Who was involved? What was the funeral like? What was said at the service? You may notice there are no why questions. Why questions tend to be confusing at this stage of healing and will probably never be answered, except in quiet, private moments, you alone will understand. The helper can make it easier for the griever to talk about the circumstances surrounding the death. He or she may need to talk about the same thing over and over again, reviewing the events of the loss, before they can accept the reality that it happened. Please be patient. It often takes up to three or four months before the awful reality of the loss of the loved one can be accepted as real. Helping them deal with the facts of the death will lead them to deal with their feelings about the death, which is more involved in Stage #2 below.
2. Cleanse the Grief Wound. What I mean by cleansing the grief wound is to remove those things that keep you from feeling. As humans, we are feeling creatures. We seem to become more unhealthy to the degree we deny that feeling part of us. Feelings give us information about what is real to us, about what is important. There would be concern if we lost a loved one and did not feel anything. Remember how I said grief is complicated suffering? There are elements of this suffering that are disagreeable to us, that we do not want to accept or own, like the helplessness, anger, guilt, unfairness, anxiety, or self-doubt. To the degree we do not allow these more troublesome feelings to come out and run their course, the grief wound is contaminated, and will not heal properly. Recording your feelings in a journal is often helpful to face some of your more painful feelings, the ones you are tempted to deny. Do not edit or censure these negative feelings when you write them. Please remember to keep the grief wound clean by getting all the elements of your grief out.
Suggestions for the Helper: It is often difficult to listen to negative feelings, and we have a tendency to want to reassure or tell the griever they are not really having these feelings. But this is a mistake. All feelings must be expressed and for this to happen you are going to have to set aside your own judgments about what is appropriate and inappropriate for the survivor of the loss to feel. Listen. Reflect back what you hear, without your own opinion about it. At this stage of healing, the survivor needs to be understood more than being instructed. For example, he or she may say, “It’s my fault that they died. I failed to warn them.” You may be tempted to reassure them that they did all they could. It would be more helpful, instead, to hear them out, and let them get all their feelings on the table over time, without you putting your opinions on how they should feel about their guilt, or any other negative feelings. There is one other caution. Sometimes, when someone is having strong feelings he or she may be inclined to make important decisions, like whether to believe in God, or whether to fulfill responsibilities or about relationships. Help the griever to understand that important decisions should be postponed until strong feelings have subsided and a clearer, less distorted perspective is obtained. A good rule of thumb is to never take counsel from or make decisions based on fear, doubt, or any other negative feeling.
3. Maintain an Environment in which the Grief Wound Can Heal. It is a big challenge to make a new life without the loved one. The loved one probably filled different roles in your life, and their absence leaves holes or empty spaces. This stage of healing the grief wound requires you to expand yourself. You may have to fill more of those spaces yourself by developing new skills, connecting with people, adapting to new circumstances, being flexible and not having to have things exactly the way they were, by controlling the parts of your life that you can control, and by not losing other things that really matter to you. There isn’t space in this article to discuss each of these. Perhaps you could talk with someone you know about what these mean to you. But the important thing to remember is the grief wound does not heal while you are passive, inactive, or not engaged with life. You must be pro-active, and doing pro-life things. You must find a way to live even though you want to withdraw, and retreat into a small cave of existence. Reach out. Surround yourself with life: plants, animals, and friends. Try to see beauty. Try to appreciate the good in people around you. Do not let the evil make you bitter and cynical. Overcome evil with good. Learn new things. Find meaning in fulfilling your daily duties. Work with your hands. Help others. Do things that used to work for you. Remember the happy moments. Try to make new ones. The grief wound heals in an environment of growth, learning, and sharing with others.
Suggestions for the Helper: It is not unusual for the survivor of the loss to feel it would be some kind of betrayal to the lost loved one, to replace them with another relationship, interest, or for that matter, any kind of pleasure or happiness. This is not true. When there is love and caring there is growth. If the survivor of the loss is to express love for the lost one, they will grow and take advantage of opportunities to live more fully. The loved one will never be replaced, but the emptiness inside can be filled with other people and other life experiences. A caution here is to encourage the griever to feel and express the intensity of their feelings (Stage #2 above) and then fill the inner spaces with new experiences. It would not be a wise step for the survivor to jump into a new relationship or escapist activity of some kind, and bypass the experiencing of these strong feelings.
4. Let the Wound Give You Wisdom, and Move on with Your Life. There is wisdom in the wound. There are deep and important life lessons your horrible loss will teach you, if you let it.
There is understanding of others you will have gained. You will be able to love in ways you were not able to before. In fact, one way to know you are truly healing from your grief wound is you are able to love others. If you are still holding on to the one who is gone, you will be unable to care as much for the ones who are still part of your life, or who will enter it. I have seen cases where someone is taken and a deep grief is suffered. When the sufferer has worked through their grief, someone new enters, and a promising new relationship blossoms. This new relationship could not have taken root, if the person who was gone, was still clung to.
Suggestions for the Helper: Grieving takes time and the healing process is gradual. We are sometimes too eager to get our friend or family member over the loss and pain and to get on with life. A survivor of loss can still fulfill their responsibilities, while grieving. But the “getting on with their life” and all that entails, takes time and caring, listening ears. It is bit of a balancing act to allow the griever the healing process of expressing and explaining how they feel, while at the same time, gently encouraging them to begin to live a new life, as suggested in #4 above. Just know that you will make some mistakes. This is part of the process of helping. When you genuinely care, what mistakes you make will shrink in significance compared to the great service you are providing as a friend to the survivor of loss.
Questions & Answers
1. How long should grief take? When a loved one is gone, usually at least a year, and often up to two years is necessary before the grief burden lightens. Some say you need to go through four full seasons, with all the anniversaries that were part of the relationship, before you can fully heal. You know your grief has been worked through when you can think of the loved one who is gone, without pain, and you can invest in a new life and relationships. I think it is a hurtful mistake, to try to hurry others through their grief work. Statements like, “You should be over this by now,” or “Get over it and get on with your life,” are not helpful and usually make things worse. Each of us as an individual needs the time we need to heal. Assume the griever is doing their best. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to “hurry up and heal,” would you?
2. What if the Relationship with the “Loved One” is Complicated by Negative Feelings and Memories? Very few, if any, relationships are free of negative experiences. One of the most difficult to heal from relationships is the one where there were unexpressed hostilities and anger. The question can more easily be answered, “What will you miss with him or her gone?” But the more difficult question is, “What won’t you miss with them gone?” Our grief may be more difficult because what we grieve for is what we wished for and never had or never will have. Grief is also made more burdensome when there was extreme dependency on the one who died. That person may need to work through the feeling of being abandoned or being left alone to take care of life’s problems. Though painful, it is important to allow the truth to find its way to the surface where the light of day can make it clear and visible, and eventually understood.
3. Are there myths or incorrect beliefs about grief? There are. Here are some more common myths about grief:
Myth #1 Mourning is over in a year.
Fact #1 Everybody’s different and has their own inner clock of healing
Myth #2 When one mourns a death, one mourns only the loss of that person and nothing else.
Fact #2 Past losses and problems often combine with current ones and make it worse.
Myth #3 Grief declines in a steadily decreasing fashion over time.
Fact #3 Actually grief doesn’t heal that way. It usually is up and down and grief can return at unpredictable times, even when we think it’s over.
Myth #4 Intensity and length of mourning and grief are a testimony of the love for the deceased.
Fact #4 It’s not that simple is it? Each loss and each grief is individual and cannot be compared with another.
Myth #5 All losses prompt the same kind of mourning.
Fact #5 Again, it’s not that simple. Each loss and each grief is individual and cannot be compared with another.
Myth #6 Persons who have lost loved ones and are bereaved only need to express their feelings in order to heal and resolve their mourning.
Fact #6 Expressing feelings can help, but support, time, new experiences, and other opportunities life will make available to heal are needed.
Myth #7 To be healthy after the death of a loved one, the mourner must put that person out of mind.
Fact #7 The lost one will not be out of mind, but will be in a place inside where there is acceptance, peace and understanding.
4. What if there are so many simultaneous losses it is not possible to work through the grief of any one loss? I know I do not understand the breadth or depth of the losses in Iraq or other wars. I have worked with those who have returned from Iraq with grief and trauma work to do. At times I have been stunned by the scope of it all. I have worked with refugees who have been tortured, I have worked with those whose entire families were killed or lost. What I’m saying is I am acquainted with the enormous losses life can bring, through the lives of those I serve and in my own family. Despite all of this, I still have hope for the future of the human family. I believe our efforts to bring freedom and peace to a troubled part of the world are important and our efforts to help the bereaved matter and we must continue making these efforts. I remain confident that God, life itself, and our friends and family, will help us find a way to heal, if we are open, honest, patient, and brave enough to face the truth. A wise woman in America said, “You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain and learn to accept it, not as a curse or punishment but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.”