Although many of us are able to speak frankly about death, we still have a lot to learn about dealing wisely with its aftermath: grief, the natural reaction to loss of a loved one.
Relatively few of us know what to say or do that can be truly helpful to a relative, friend or acquaintance who is grieving. In fact, relatively few who have suffered a painful loss know how to be most helpful to themselves.
We can all benefit from learning how to respond to grief in ways that don’t prolong, intensify or dismiss the pain. Likewise, those trying to help need to know that grief cannot be fit into a preordained time frame or form of expression. Too often people who experience a loss are disparaged because their mourning persists longer than others think reasonable or because they remain self-contained and seem not to mourn at all.
I imagine, for example, that some adults thought my stoical response to my mother’s premature death when I was 16 was “unnatural.” In truth, after tending to her for a year as she suffered through an unstoppable cancer, her death was a relief. It took a year for me to shed my armor and openly mourn the incalculable loss. But 60 years later, I still treasure her most important legacy: To live each day as if it could be my last but with an eye on the future in case it’s not.
Likewise, I was relieved when my husband’s suffering ended six weeks after diagnosis of an incurable cancer. Though I missed him terribly, I seemed to go on with my life as if little had changed. Few outside of the immediate family knew that I was honouring his dying wish that I continue to live fully for my own sake and that of our children and grandchildren.
Just as we all love others in our own unique ways, so do we mourn their loss in ways that cannot be fit into a single mold or even a dozen different molds.
Megan Devine, author of ‘It’s OK That You’re Not OK’, says that most grief support offered by professionals and others takes the wrong approach by encouraging mourners to move through the pain. While family and friends naturally want you to feel better, “pain that is not allowed to be spoken or expressed turns in on itself, and creates more problems,” she writes.
“Unacknowledged and unheard pain doesn’t go away. The way to survive grief is by allowing pain to exist, not in trying to cover it up or rush through it.”
Devine says that being “encouraged to ‘get over it’ is one of the biggest causes of suffering inside grief.”
Rather than trying to “cure” pain, the goal should be to minimize suffering, which she says “comes when we feel dismissed or unsupported in our pain, with being told there is something wrong with what you feel.”
She explains that pain cannot be “fixed,” that companionship, not correction, is the best way to deal with grief. She encourages those who want to be helpful to “bear witness,” to offer friendship without probing questions or unsolicited advice, help if it is needed and wanted, and a listening ear no matter how often mourners wish to tell their story.
To those who grieve, she suggests finding a nondestructive way to express it.
“If you can’t tell your story to another human, find another way: Journal, paint, make your grief into a graphic novel with a very dark storyline. It is an immense relief to be able to tell your story without someone trying to fix it.”
Devine also suggests keeping a journal that records situations that either intensify or relieve suffering.
“Are there times you feel more stable, more grounded, more able to breathe inside your loss? Does anything — a person, a place, an activity — add to your energy bank account? Conversely, are there activities or environments that absolutely make things worse?”
Whenever possible, to decrease suffering choose to engage in things that help and avoid those that don’t.
New York Times