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Grief Matters

Dear Dr. Leary:

 My husband died four months ago and my world is still reeling.  I feel out of control and out of touch.  Friends keep asking me what they can do for me, and I don’t know what to tell them.  Can you help me put what I need into words for them?  A Wife without Words

 Dear Wife:

 There is comfort in the compassion and good intentions of others but when we are exhausted by grief, we have little capacity to think for others or advocate for ourselves.  We can find what we need when we identify our feelings.

 You may have never had such a loss before.  You may be feeling numb, exhausted, and unable to think.  You may be at a loss for words and unsure if anything would help.  These are normal and acceptable responses to death of your husband.  Friends want to help but may not know what is helpful.  Many are uncomfortable and unprepared for grief, and either stay away, say and do things that don’t help, or act in ways that are not helpful to the people they care about.

The following support in the form of requests have helped others:

 “Please be with me, even when there is nothing to do, or when I have nothing to say.  Sometimes I just need to be with someone in silence.”

  •  “Please listen to me.  Let me tell my story as many times as I need without interrupting or reminding me that I’ve told it before.”
  • “Please remember my loved one by name and with specific stories.”
  • “Please allow me all my feelings, whether they are comfortable or understandable to you.”
  • “Please ask me what I need instead of assuming.” 
  • “Please do what you say you will do for me.”
  •  “Please give me time to grieve in my own way, and at my own pace.”
  • Please stay with me and my grief on holidays, anniversaries, and when my grief surprises me years later.

 Any one of these acts of kindness can make a difference.  Please use these as conversation starters, or as a response, when friends ask you what they can do for you.  Very few of us know what the death of a loved one means to us, and what we need, until it happens to us.  You can help them to understand and to give you what you need.

 Blessings,

Lani

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

I find myself not talking about my loved one much because I don’t want to burden anyone…and I think some people are tired of listening to me.  How can handle this? I don’t want to go to a counselor – I just want to talk about my loved one!

Anne

 

 Dear Anne:

Grief is natural and universal, and needs to be supported, shared and expressed. As unique as grief is to each of us, so is how we share and express it. The support you are asking for is to be heard, without others’ impatience of “getting on with it” or judgment that you are a burden.

The greatest comfort to our grief is validation and another person’s genuine presence. Unfortunately, we often must educate and guide others who have not experienced a loss, and provide a roadmap of what we need. It takes energy that you may feel you don’t have right now, but when you do gather your resources, identify a friend or family member who you trust. Ask directly for what you need, and ask for a mutually convenient time when you might be able to talk about your loved one. I’ve had conversations with a well-meaning friend who did not know how to support me by saying something like “I trust that you care about me, and I don’t expect you to know what I need. Right now I am feeling alone without my father, and I feel worse when no one will talk with me about him. Would you be willing to listen to my stories of him, and share your own remembrances? Can we do that soon?”

I will also tell my inner circle of supporters that I have learned that “every loss deserves a hundred tellings.” So again, I ask directly that they allow me to tell the same story, or reminisce and repeat memories as often as I feel the need. “Please don’t tell me that I’ve already told you that story.” 

Friends don’t have to know what to say. Others do not have to understand our situation or have been through a death in order to accept, validate, or honor our grief. Ask them to be present silently, companioning you with a walk, or listening to music, or sharing a kindness. Just being there for you is validating, and honors what you are going through. Just by acknowledging your loss, your friend enters into your world. Their genuine questions and curiosity about your loved one allows you to share your feelings and the long road of grief.

     As you share your grief and talk about your loved one, you come to accept the reality of the death, and understand your wide range of feelings. In the process, you will navigate your grief, and come to understand what you need, what will help, and what won’t. You are the expert on your grief. Others who have not yet had to experience loss do not know that it is a never-ending story, and there is no such thing as closure. Others can support you so that grief softens, and you find meaning in a new world without your loved one. What you are asking for is reasonable; you want to give your sorrow words, and you want others to face the grief with you rather than stay mute or turn away.

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

 My husband died a year ago and, following many people’s advice, I have not made any major life decisions or changes.  But now I'm thinking about a move to another state because of a job opportunity.  How will I deal with being in a new place where no one knew my husband?  I feel that I will be untethered and out of balance without the reference to him.  It's like losing him all over again. Can you help me deal with my anxiety?

 

Yours is not an uncommon task: in the journey called grief, we are challenged to find the courage and energy to move forward into the uncharted territory of a place and future which does not include our loved one. 

The feeling of losing him again is what you do as you review the reality of his death again and again, to understand the mystery of loss from many different perspectives.  You are returning, reviewing, and readjusting to the reality of life without him.  

As you grieve, the daunting task is to relearn how to live in this new world and relearn what your world means without your loved one.  You are working to find an answer to “who am I without him?”  “What does my life mean without him?” We have to learn how to invest ourselves in facets of life that once involved our loved one.  We have to learn who we are now; how to be ourselves in a world without our loved one to, and why our life has meaning, even without him. 

            You have been with your husband in the physical your whole married life; now you must learn a different kind of intimacy and connection.  The best metaphor I can think of is a song.  You have sung a melody with your husband for years called “Marriage”.  Even though he is not singing it with you now, or you are not singing out loud so others can hear it, you are able to hold the melody in your mind, hear it echo and replay anytime you choose.  You carry the tune though the song does not sing itself.  It lives in you even when the singing stops.  You carry that wherever you go in to the future.

            Robert Lifton talks about a “symbolic immortality” as we learn to live and acknowledge the values, meanings, and legacy left to us by the deceased.  We can make our focus the mystery of the immortal aspects of their lives.  The struggle is to retain and cherish what you have been given from him and your relationship.  Take that and shape the future years, weaving his legacy into her new life.  No matter where you move, you take his values and his legacy with you.

Your old home and community must have held reminders, memories, and benchmarks of your life together and so it holds parts of your husband.  Sometimes we believe if we leave the home we made together, we leave the love behind…as though love could ever be confined by walls or geography.  Perhaps those things, places, and people that remind you of your husband can serve as a “backboard” from which your husband comes back to you.  I believe that you can carry that backboard with you into a new place because it is your mind and your heart that hold your husband and your history together.  You can expand your resources and the things that will evoke him for you: 1) make a list of the things in your home that you will take with you that remind you of him; 2) create anniversaries that celebrate your history together; 3) continue to “relate” to him and share who you are becoming; 4) share stories of him with new friends as you would share stories of how you grew up and where you came from.  In essence, you can learn a different form of attachment and way of belonging to your loved one.  You can carry him with you rather than leave him behind.

 Go into your future honoring your past.  Thinking of you, Lani

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

My dad has been dead 18 months but I am still grieving and sometimes
feel like it was just yesterday.  Some days are especially bad.  Should
I be over this by now?  I feel like I am just beginning to heal.  I
still can't talk about him without crying.  How do I move past this
hurt and begin to live a normal life again? “Stuck”

 Dear “Stuck”:

            When we lose a loved one the only way “past” the hurt is to go directly through it.  Engaging in personal grief work is extremely courageous because it asks us to touch the parts of ourselves that is the most tender and most vulnerable.  Grief requires us to stay in a dark place and find new meaning toward a way of life and a world that has been turned upside down by death.  In order to move past the hurt, we must dive into it and 1) accept the reality of the death; 2) feel and express our reactions to the loss; 3) adjust to our life without our loved one; and 4) find a way to reinvest in life.

 Our “normal” beliefs, worldview, and behavior may suffer for a long time.  Grief asks that you find a “new normal” definition of life and yourself.  If we have never suffered the loss of a loved one before, death takes us by surprise and the long journey through grief feels rudderless and prolonged.  Even if we have been through the heartache and questioning after the death of a loved one, each new loss requires its own journey and work.

            Your grief has its own timing.  It may come in waves rather than a steady gush and it can be unpredictable, or come as reminders during special times of the year.

Many mourners report that the second year is more difficult than the first.  What they may be referring to is that the first year is lived in shock and disorientation, and later the body is able to adjust to the reality and begins feeling the loss and expressing it.  You are not “late” or “delayed” or “wrong” in your grief.  You are doing the hard work of accepting your father’s death, reviewing the relationship, and finding a way to live without him.

            Your grief is personal and you will find your own way to express it and work through it.  No one else can tell you what it should look like or sound like.  Grief is not an assignment with a due date of completion.  Grief is an active, coping investment of energy and emotion and asks that you relearn the world without your father.  It will take time and many attempts to redefine yourself and your roles without this loved one in your life. 

            When you ask if you “should” be over your grief after only 18 months, you may be sentencing yourself to more heartache through your own judgment.  Our culture has unrealistic expectations about the grieving process.  We do not have mentors or guides to model healthy grieving, and we do not know how to observe our intense feelings without judgment.  Your grief is personal, and it is your psyche’s way of working through and understanding your relationship with your father, and the impact of his death in your life.  However long you visit the stories, and whenever thoughts of him come to mind, is part of your healing.  My suggestion is to be an observer as well as a participant in your grief; witness your tears and at the same time tell yourself “I am ok even when I feel sad”.  As you are able to hold the awareness that “I am sad” and “I am coping” at the same time, you will have more confidence and less anxiety about experiencing your grief.  You are moving into your new life, and doing it in your own perfect timing.  Be patient with yourself, please.

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

I am approaching the first anniversary of my husband's death.  I know I am probably more sensitive to this date than my friends and many of my own family.  The day will be really difficult for me.  Do you have any suggestions for how to get through it?  Grieving Wife

Dear Grieving Wife:

Until we go through our own personal loss it is difficult to be prepared or truly appreciate the intensity of grief and how long it deeply affects us.  Grief is a process that extends over time, and in most cases has a lifelong impact on who we are and how we see ourselves in the world.  It is your grief and only you know the personal meaning and implications of it in your life.  That means you are living it day-in and day-out in a way that others can not know.

The first anniversary of the death of a loved one is especially difficult.  Others can hurt, help, or heal during this time and as much effort as it may ask of you, you can help yourself by educating others about what you need.

Those of us going through a first anniversary have reported some suggestions for support.  Most important is the need for acknowledgement of the loss, and references to the loved one.  Grieving is about remembering, so friends and family should help remember the deceased with stories, photos, or personal connections.  Support is helpful when the expression of the sympathy matched the depth of the relationship they had with the person.   It helps to have “permission” not to be okay, to show the pain and hurt or be withdrawn if that is how you are feeling.  We need people who will listen without personalizing or trying to take the pain away.  We need to be able to share exactly what we are feeling without feeling judged or evaluated.  In a word, we need someone who will be present with us.

Remembrances can be in the form of a ritual or ceremony, which is really setting aside a time and place with the purpose of acknowledging our relationship with the deceased, our life and connection to that person, and the change in our life because of the loss. 

There is a “bereavement overload” when our grief when our loved one or the death is not acknowledged; when the relationship is not acknowledged; when the mourner is not acknowledged; or when there is not a private or public dialogue of the loss. 

I encourage you to spend time thinking about what you will need on or around this anniversary day.  Reach out and carefully choose those friends and family that can give you what you need, and ask directly for specific acts of patience and kindness.  Design a ceremony or ritual that will have meaning for you and set aside the time to make it happen.  That may include a meaningful place, music, food, or activity that held a special memory for you and your husband. 

 

Dr. Leary:

My husband died almost a year ago now.  One of the challenges of my grief is my emotions.  When I’m in public and am asked about him I almost always tear-up and have trouble completing a conversation.  I cherish all the memories I have of our life together and they make me feel wonderful but for some reason it is difficult remembering him in a public setting without embarrassing myself with tears.  Do you have suggestions? Susan

 Dear Susan:

You find yourself in a place that none of us knows about until we are engulfed in it.  Your tears are the words that seem never enough to describe your void and your pain.  The problem may not be your tears and difficulty talking about your husband in public, but how you make meaning out of your normal response.  You may feel exposed, raw, and fragile in a public setting.  Grief makes us feel out of control; unable to think; unable to control our emotions.  So it is a natural, physiological response to grief to be unable to think and focus, and unable to maintain control over your tears.  Instead of judging yourself, your feelings, or your reactions please accept that you are navigating through unknown territory, doing the best that you can in this moment.  In fact, there is nothing weak or frail about your tears, but a willingness to be authentic and courageous.  It takes strength and honesty to be vulnerable and real. Your tears are healing and need to be expressed.   

There are places and events where your memories and all expressions of your grief would be welcome and encouraged.  There are friends who want to be with you and listen as you remember your husband.  There are others who have lost spouses who will understand your pain, and who have shed similar tears over similar songs and anniversaries.  Being with others who are experiencing loss and grief can reflect for you that what you are feeling, doing, and thinking is exactly where you should be in your journey.  As difficult and painful as it is, your emotions and their expression are reminders of the significance of your loved one and the power of your relationship.

We need each other as we grieve. We will all grieve; what we all have in common and share is an experience with love and loss.  Connection is what makes it bearable. Through ceremonies and rituals we can acknowledge, validate, and reflect a mourner’s feelings and experiences after a death.  Just having a caring environment in which you can express your feelings and be heard is profoundly healing.

I encourage you to be gentle, comforting, and accepting of yourself.  Grieving is physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting work and no one can do it for you, or do a “better” job.  Expressing your grief is important work as you try to find a new way of being in the world, in a new way without your husband.

There will be a time when you will be able to speak about your husband without being overwhelmed and in tears.  Death does not get to take away the love you feel for him.  You can live with grief but carry it with love. You can take your loved one forward into the future with you, into your life in a new way.  You will not forget him just because your tears lessen.  Grief does not end, but it can be transformed and softened.  Love for your husband does not die just because he did.

 

 Dear Dr. Leary:

Do I really need to go to a mental health therapist about my grief? Elise

 Dear Elise:

 We grieve before, during, and after an illness, death, or loss.  It is helpful, but not imperative, to receive support as you are going through the reactions and responses to grief.  Support comes in many forms, through many different avenues.

 You might find the person who can listen often and objectively to you in your neighbor, your best friend, or your pastor.  It is important that you have someone, or a group, to validate your experience and your perspective as you review the circumstances of your loss, and understand your feelings and thoughts.  The person that most supports you may not be a trained professional or mental health therapist, but someone who has “worked through” their own grief and loss issues will most likely be able to be constructive and encourage you to do the long, hard griefwork that many others resist or avoid.

 Trust your gut and allow yourself the comfort of someone who you can trust, who builds a solid relationship with you, and who allows you to explore any and all of your feelings.  Avoid support from someone who “prescribes” a rigid perspective, projects their own feelings or issues on to your experience, or dismisses what you need.  There is help out there, and I hope you receive the support you deserve.

 

 

 

 

GRIEF MATTERS

The Long Road of Grief

The way “out” of grief is to move directly into it.

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

 

Why do we find meaning in attending the “In Celebration & Remembrance” ceremonies year after year?”  Friends may say this is really sad that we have not “gotten over” the death of our daughter, but for us, it feels important.  Why do we keep returning? Is there something wrong with this?  A Grieving Family

 

Dear Grieving Family:          

It takes great courage to grieve, because it asks you to be open and vulnerable to your deepest wound.  Your grief exposes you and can make you feel out of control.  It takes courage to feel your pain and share it with others.  It takes courage to learn how to live in a new world, in a new way, without your loved one.

But in our culture, the bereaved most often report that they feel alone with their grief.  You may have felt abandoned just weeks after the funeral.  You may have felt as though you were on your own, trying to navigate this unknown territory by yourself.  Or people often say that they feel shamed that their grief has not abated to other’s timetables.  That is, until we find a community of others who know our experience of death and grief; who share our common language; who also know what we need and what helps.

You return to rituals and ceremonies that honor your loved one because you find meaning and solace in a shared experience with love and loss.  You are in community with each other, and the connection with others can make your loss more bearable.

In this community of the bereaved you find a safe space.  You are a family and yet, you are as different as you are similar.  While each of your loss is unique, each one of you is the expert for your grief alone, but you all grieve and are in community.  You share the human condition of being vulnerable and that is what connects all of us.

Each of your heartaches is unique and none of it is common…but you have much in common. You grieve because you have loved.  You come together again to remember and honor that love, and you come to these remembrance celebrations because it is here that you are given permission, time, safety, and validation to remember and to grieve.

Together, during these remembrance celebrations, you do not need to be afraid that you will forget or that your loved ones will be forgotten.  You can speak their name; you can tell their stories; you carry on their legacy; you share your loved one with others.  Just having a caring environment in which you can express your feelings and be heard is profoundly healing.

All grief needs to be blessed, and in order to be blessed, it must be heard.  Someone must be present to your expression of grief, someone who is willing to hold it by listening without judgment or comparison. When you wail or tell your story of loss, it is based in your need that your loss not go unnoticed—the death of your loved one will not be overlooked, and your loved one’s place in the world will be marked. Grief is an expression that validates your loved one’s existence in the world and acknowledges that love for a person does not die just because she or he did.

 

 

 

Dear Dr. Leary:

My dad has been dead 18 months but I am still grieving and sometimes
feel like it was just yesterday.  Some days are especially bad.  Should
I be over this by now?  I feel like I am just beginning to heal.  I
still can't talk about him without crying.  How do I move past this
hurt and begin to live a normal life again? “Stuck”

 Dear “Stuck”:

            When we lose a loved one the only way “past” the hurt is to go directly through it.  Engaging in personal grief work is extremely courageous because it asks us to touch the parts of ourselves that is the most tender and most vulnerable.  Grief requires us to stay in a dark place and find new meaning toward a way of life and a world that has been turned upside down by death.  In order to move past the hurt, we must dive into it and 1) accept the reality of the death; 2) feel and express our reactions to the loss; 3) adjust to our life without our loved one; and 4) find a way to reinvest in life.

 Our “normal” beliefs, worldview, and behavior may suffer for a long time.  Grief asks that you find a “new normal” definition of life and yourself.  If we have never suffered the loss of a loved one before, death takes us by surprise and the long journey through grief feels rudderless and prolonged.  Even if we have been through the heartache and questioning after the death of a loved one, each new loss requires its own journey and work.

            Your grief has its own timing.  It may come in waves rather than a steady gush and it can be unpredictable, or come as reminders during special times of the year.

Many mourners report that the second year is more difficult than the first.  What they may be referring to is that the first year is lived in shock and disorientation, and later the body is able to adjust to the reality and begins feeling the loss and expressing it.  You are not “late” or “delayed” or “wrong” in your grief.  You are doing the hard work of accepting your father’s death, reviewing the relationship, and finding a way to live without him.

            Your grief is personal and you will find your own way to express it and work through it.  No one else can tell you what it should look like or sound like.  Grief is not an assignment with a due date of completion.  Grief is an active, coping investment of energy and emotion and asks that you relearn the world without your father.  It will take time and many attempts to redefine yourself and your roles without this loved one in your life. 

            When you ask if you “should” be over your grief after only 18 months, you may be sentencing yourself to more heartache through your own judgment.  Our culture has unrealistic expectations about the grieving process.  We do not have mentors or guides to model healthy grieving, and we do not know how to observe our intense feelings without judgment.  Your grief is personal, and it is your psyche’s way of working through and understanding your relationship with your father, and the impact of his death in your life.  However long you visit the stories, and whenever thoughts of him come to mind, is part of your healing.  My suggestion is to be an observer as well as a participant in your grief; witness your tears and at the same time tell yourself “I am ok even when I feel sad”.  As you are able to hold the awareness that “I am sad” and “I am coping” at the same time, you will have more confidence and less anxiety about experiencing your grief.  You are moving into your new life, and doing it in your own perfect timing.  Be patient with yourself, please.

 

© Lani Leary, Ph.D., 2014

 

Pictured, Dr. Lani Leary

 

Lani Leary, Ph.D. specializes in work with chronically ill, dying, and bereaved clients. She has worked for the past 30 years as a psychotherapist in private practice, as a chaplain in the intensive care unit, and as a counselor in eight hospices across the country.  She was a professor of Death Studies at George Mason University, and as a researcher at the National Cancer Institute of NIH.  Lani has spoken at TEDx Honolulu and nationally at over 250 conferences. She is certified in grief therapy, EMDR, hypnotherapy, and Critical Incident Stress Management.  She is the author of No One Has To Die Alone: Preparing for a Meaningful Death, and Healing Hands, an internationally best-selling audio tape about complimentary approaches to pain management.  Her website is www.drlanileary.com.

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