Surviving Grief ... and Learning to Live Again
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Surviving Grief ... and Learning to Live Again

Catherine M. Sanders

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eBook - ePub

Surviving Grief ... and Learning to Live Again

Catherine M. Sanders

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About This Book

An insightful, compassionate account of the grieving process thathelps us through the pain and isolation experienced with the lossof a loved one.. We're never really prepared for the loss ofsomeone we love. Thrown into a state of emotional chaos weexperience rage, guilt, anxiety, and intense sadness all at once.It's the oldest story in the world, we tell ourselves -- millionsof people have had to cope with this before -- and yet, we alwaysbelieve that what we are experiencing is unique to us. We feelisolated in our anguish and often ashamed of what we are feeling. Aprofoundly compassionate and insightful book, Surviving Grief.& Learning to Live Again offers you the support andunderstanding you need to get you through this difficult time.Written by Dr. Catherine Sanders, a therapist and researcherspecializing in bereavement issues and one who has lived throughthe loss of close family members, it helps you to see that what youare feeling is part of a natural process of readjustment andrenewal. According to Dr. Sanders, grieving, like any other naturalregenerative process, must be allowed to run its proper course ifwe are ever to regain our equilibrium and continue on with ourlives. To help us better understand the process, she describes thefive universal phases of grief: Shock, Awareness of Loss, Conservation and The Need to Withdraw, Healing, and Renewal, andguides us through each. Drawing directly from her own experiencesand those of her clients and her research studies, she delvesdeeply and compassionately into the different experiences of grief, and talks about what it means to lose a mate, a parent, or a child.And she discusses the factors that can have an influence on thegrieving process, such as age, gender, and the circumstancessurrounding the loved one's death.

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The Pain of Grief

Grief is so impossibly painful, so akin to panic, that we must invent ways to defend against the emotional onslaught of suffering. There is a fear that if we ever give in fully to grief, we would be swept under—as in a huge tidal wave—never to surface to ordinary emotional states again.
When I began my research into bereavement more than twenty years ago, the major focus of my inquiry was directed toward learning how to quell the pain of grief. The loss of a loved one hurts so much. Not only is the intensity severe, but the pain appears to be as much physical as it is emotional. The emotional pain, I could understand; we have always heard about that. But I had trouble, at that time, believing that any physical pain could have a connection to grieving.
Since then, I have come to understand that we are probably unrealistic if we think we can avoid the pain of grief. Letting go of someone we love is not easy. The insecurity we experience following a major loss is frightening and debilitating. Yet, if we can learn more about grief and how it affects us, we can reduce the fear associated with grief's hurtful emotions. Reducing the resistance to pain often lessens the pain itself.
Most of us are taken by complete surprise when we encounter death. It is as if we expect life to produce all gains and no losses. Our expectations exist even though we know that we are going to lose some of our dearest loved ones along life's way. Do we still cling to childhood tales of a perfect world where everyone lives happily ever after? Perhaps that is why we are so rarely prepared for death.
Of all the people I interviewed in the Tampa Study, only a handful said that they were prepared for a death in even the smallest way. The others all said they were incapable of dealing with sorrow. They felt that what they were experiencing wasn't normal, that it was, instead, a form of mental illness similar to a nervous breakdown. Many said that it was more like fear than anything else.
I can identify with that description. When my son, Jim, died, the shameful sense that I was different from everyone else—that I must be a different person, inside and out, from the one I used to be—led me to a fear that I was going crazy. The thoughts and feelings I was having were foreign to me. I would rage at God, the doctors, and the rescue squad for not protecting Jim enough, and then yield to crippling guilt as I blamed myself for the same reason. These thoughts and feelings couldn't be seen by others. Yet, in my own mind, I was different. I had just lost my child.

Why Do We Grieve?

This might seem like a simple question, but few of us really understand much of grief's function. We grieve because our loss hurts so deeply. It awakens all our childhood fears of abandonment and leaves us feeling scared, exposed, and unsafe. We so dread facing our negative emotions that, at times, we avoid and deny the fact that we are feeling grief at all. I have heard people say, “I don't want to know anything about grief until I have to. It will find me soon enough.” They're right; it will. However, if we are armed with an understanding of grief and know what to expect when it comes, we can face it more openly and less fearfully.
When we are separated from people we love, with no way to get them back and no way to fix things as they once were, we feel out of control and helpless. We miss having our loved ones near and ache to have them back. Intellectually, we know they are not coming back and yet it seems impossible to let them go. We remain in emotional conflict until we are finally able to release them. The major suffering of bereavement comes in this middle range of transition, after the ending and before our new beginning.

Denial: Not a Solution

Because loss is so painful, it is not unthinkable that grief is denied. The thought of separation from our loved ones fills us with as much dread as it did when we were children. Most of us can remember a time when our parents left us, even if only to go out for an evening, and we were inconsolable. Usually, our pain lasted only long enough for our parents to disappear from the driveway. Then our attention was turned to something else, a distraction of one thing or another. We often distract ourselves in grief, thinking that we are getting through it more easily. What we don't realize is that we must face our grief in order to come out on the other side of it. There is no other way. Distractions keep us occupied but don't move us toward resolution. We stay in a cul-de-sac, circling round and round, until finally we can bolt out onto the main highway once again and continue our journey.
Denial of grief is connected with the lack of traditional mourning clothing. Wearing “funeral black” may seem drab and old-fashioned, but in the past it carried a message of personal sorrow and an unspoken request for consideration from others. The message seemed to work both ways.
The comforters were alerted to show proper concern for the bereaved, and the bereaved, being comforted themselves, could respond to those who helped.
Another subtle aspect of denial has an effect on grief. There seems to be a cycle that confuses communication. It works this way: People are self-conscious and ill-at-ease in the presence of newly bereaved persons primarily because they have had so little to do with bereaved persons. The reason they have had little to do with bereaved persons is that they are self-conscious and ill-at-ease in their presence. To break this cycle, we need to begin at the beginning and remove the self-consciousness surrounding bereaved persons. It would be good to start with children, because they have a wonderful sense of compassion.
In the past, when death and grieving used to occur at home, children were taught death education naturally. They learned that mourners were in a special state of mind and required more consideration and more respect than they were given before the death. Most importantly, children were able to see how grown-ups acted during the rituals. They had good role models because people more openly showed their grief.
Today, children have few role models to imitate. Even worse, they are generally left out of the rituals of mourning—usually, to be protected from such morbid events. As a result, we have produced a generation that is unable to support bereaved persons. The denial of grief places a burden of silence on mourners during a time when they need to be nurtured and comforted. The art of condolence takes a special consideration that most people do not know how to give.
Excursions into denial are easy. We are always looking for distractors, for anything to keep us away from the pain. Yet, pain is exactly what we need to experience if we are to heal our wounded hearts. Grief is a strange paradox. We are forced to let go of our beloved persons at exactly the time when our souls are screaming to have them back.

Strong Attachments

Much of our grieving depends on the closeness of the relationship between ourselves and the one we have lost. Was it a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend? Each relationship carries a different meaning, different roles, and varying amounts of attachment. The closer the relationship, the harder it is to give it up.
Our attachments begin early in life. Shortly after we are born, we bond with our parents and an important connection develops. Sometime during our first year, we are able to establish a trusting relationship with them: we trust that they won't leave us. From that trust, we develop a gradual sense of security within our world. We feel that we can trust in other relationships. Our close relationships give us feelings of safety and security. Even our children, for whom we normally think we are providing the security, give us a feeling of completeness.
That's what attachment behavior is; it becomes a fundamental form of completeness and protection. When we lose a major attachment figure, we feel afraid and dreadfully insecure. The world becomes a frightening place. Everything that we have depended on is now turned upside down and we lose our way for a while.

Our Inescapable Feelings

The alternative to grieving is numbing ourselves so that we don't have to feel. This may seem like a less painful route at first, especially during the time when we are frightened and disoriented. Yet, to not feel means that we also give up joy, pleasure, peace, laughter, and all the emotions that we find most satisfying. If we have the courage to go into our grief, allowing ourselves to feel and experience both its positive and its negative effects, we can shorten the time it takes to survive a major loss. Only when we try to avoid the pain and escape the work of grief will we stumble and fall.
To get through our grief, we will need to know that it's acceptable to express our feelings. If we think we “have to be strong” and can express only positive feelings, then we won't be able to grieve. If we want to come out on the other side, with our grief work completed, then we need to give ourselves the permission, the time, and the acceptance to feel what we are feeling.

Grief and Identification

In most close relationships, we take on the feelings of others, often experiencing them as our own. It is natural to identify with those near to us. This identification is especially true with our children. Actually, in many situations, we are more tuned in to what we think others are feeling than we are to recognizing our own feelings. If any member of our family expresses sadness or anger, we imagine what that person must be feeling and take some of it to be our own. If our husbands, for example, seem angry, we wonder what we have done to cause the anger and, as a result, often feel angry in response. If our children feel lonely or are left out of the group they normally associate with, we feel that loneliness also. This is identification. When we lose someone we have identified with, we lose a part of ourselves. The part of us that we shared with that person must now be cut off.

Grief Work

Grief is exhausting. Few people realize that the work of grief takes a tremendous toll in psychic energy. This in turn affects our level of physical energy. If we were to do strenuous physical labor all day, we would reach the extent of effort grief requires.
Sigmund Freud was the first to use the term “grief work” to describe the mind racing and the inner turmoil that go on when we are forced to give up a loved one. Our perceptions don't change easily. Once we have formed a reality that seems true to us, we stick with it. It is difficult to imagine that one day a person is here and the next day is gone. When that person has been in our world as a significant figure, our perception is even harder to change. Because of our reluctance to give up a loved person, we have to do it slowly, a little at a time. During this time, the period when we slowly give up our beloved family member or friend, much of the trauma of grief takes place. This is the time when we feel our emotions most strongly—guilt, anger, shame, frustration, and many other negative emotions. When we look at it this way, we can see that the term “grief work” is most appropriate.

Why Does Grief Hurt So?

Grief has been compared to both a physical injury and a physical illness. It has also been called a psychological blow. These definitions may all be accurate. We are aware that grief can cause sickness and deep emotional distress. A number of research studies have shown that there is a significant death rate among widowers, especially during the first two years of their bereavement. My own study indicated that people get sick more often, following a major loss. Other studies have shown that illness occurs after other types of losses as well— divorce, retirement, or loss of a body part. Grief hurts so deeply because we are torn from somethi...

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