“There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.” Arnold Bennett (1867-1931)
No amount of knowledge can prepare us for bereavement. Grief is the most intense and enduring emotion we can experience. No quick fix. No short-cut. An ancient African saying is “There is no way out of the desert except through it.” Knowledge of the grief process gives us a very generalized map of the terrain we have to cover. Each of us will take a different route. Each will choose his own landmarks. He will travel at his own unique speed and will navigate using the tools provided by his culture, experience, and faith. In the end, he will be forever changed by his journey.
Knowledge helps us avoid the major pitfalls of grief. A knowledge of what is known of grief assures us that we have not lost all sense of sanity. When we find ourselves feeling befuddled in a mist shrouded swamp we can say “It’s OK. This too is part of my journey. Others have gone this way before me and I will survive. I am human.”
Grief Work, Stages, and Phases. Several blueprints or theories about grief have been proposed. Sigmund Freud began with the concept of having to do ’grief work’. That is, a specific job should be finished before the next job begins. Stages of grief theories abound. Depending on the writer, 4 to 12 stages of grief are described. Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined 5 overlapping stages as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. John Bowlby and Colin Parkes prefer to describe grief in terms of phases . J.W. Worden refers to 4 tasks of mourning: Accepting the reality of the Loss, experiencing the pain, adjusting to a life without your loved one and finally being able to invest your emotional energy into a new life.
So who do you believe?
Grief or bereavement theories are the generalized maps discussed earlier. Each theory is an attempt by a caring investigator to understand and guide us through our pain. However, humans are unique and cannot be forced into particular patterns of behavior. You will travel through grief at your own speed using your appropriate route.
Let this circle represent a stage, phase, or piece of work. It can be denial, shock, anger, resolution, confusion, numbness, a behavior or whatever you are feeling right now.
Add a second circle and let it overlap the first. Give it another name. Perhaps what you were feeling yesterday, last week or one hour ago.
Continue adding circles that overlap and represent emotions, physical sensations, cognition or behaviors that belong to you.
This is Grief’s Blueprint. You may feel secure and at peace one moment and find yourself in the paralyzing center of all the overlapping elements of grief the next. It’s OK. It’s human.
What are these elements’ of grief?
There is no complete list of the experiences that comprise grief. The common ones are emotional, physical sensations, behaviors and cognitions. Cognition refers to the way you think and how information is processed by your brain. How you experience grief will be unique to you and will be affected by several factors. Some are discussed below:
The death of a member of your softball team will have a different impact on you than the death of a spouse.
What was your relationship with the deceased?
To say “My wife has died” just begins to describe your relationship and the extent of your grief. Have you lost your best friend? Accountant? Confident? Interior Decorator? The mother of your child? Sexual partner? Did her death leave unresolved conflict?
What was the cause of death?
The expected death of an aging grandparent on a life support system and in great pain creates a grief reaction different than the unexpected, traumatic death of a child or the suicide of a family member.
These are a few of the variables that make each grief experience different.
Use a shotgun as a disconcerting but graphic analogy. It can fire a mixed load of pellets at high velocity. As the pellets travel through the air they slow down and spread out. A target very close to the muzzle of the gun will be deeply penetrated by most of the pellets in a compact, destructive pattern
A distant target may have a few pellets barely penetrate or bounce off its surface.
Some men, when trying to describe the impact death has on them have used the phrase “I feel like a shotgun has blown a hole right through me.” This is a fitting analogy. Researchers have compared the psychological effect of bereavement to physical wounding. How the human body heals itself depends on the nature of the wound, the extent of the damage, the medical assistance available and the health of the victim. The patient may recover fully, experience some physical disability or permanent limitation. So it is with grief. Mourning is grief’s’ time of healing.
Some of grief’s ’shotgun pellets’
You may be wounded by all, most, or just a few of these ’pellets’. Your grief is unique to you.
Men often describe their emotional feelings in physical terms. ”It knocked the wind out of me.”, “Hit me right between the eyes”, or “Her death just crushed me.” are common examples.
Cognition seems to cause men the most difficulty. Some experiences may lead you to think you are ’going crazy’. You are not! Your mind and heart are simply not ready to ’let go’ of the dead. In time, these sometimes confusing or frightening experiences will pass.
Hallucinations: You may hear her voice, the sound of his footstep, see glimpses of your child moving in a room. These can be triggered by normal sounds, a scent that reminds you of the aroma of her perfume, or the simple objects used in everyday life.
Spiritual Emptiness: Your religious faith may be a source of comfort or disillusionment. Speak to your religious leader or find a spiritual advisor if you feel the need.
Absent Mindedness or Preoccupation is common. The 3 days normally granted by employers mark the beginning of your mourning. It will take considerably longer for you to resolve your grief.
Caution: Work involving power tools, heavy equipment or driving can be extremely dangerous following the death of a loved one. If you find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of the one you loved or lost, stop your car or truck, shut down any heavy machinery and move to a safe area. Let yourself cry in the privacy of your vehicle. Do a ’walk around check’. Give all 18 tires a good kick! Don’t drive while under the influence of your emotions.
Depression and Grief: Many grief experiences are similar to those of a major depression. Depression is a natural reaction to the death of a loved one. This type of depression is called a reactive depression. It occurs as a reaction to a specific event and its duration and intensity varies. In the blueprint of your grief are moments of wonderful, joyous laughter as you recall great times and humorous incidents. An immediate sense of depression may follow the laughter. This is normal. Your emotional roller coaster ride will gradually and gently slow down and level off. Occasionally, a grief event may lead to a full clinical depression requiring medical intervention.
Alcohol and Drugs: Alcohol is a depressant drug. The term “Crying in his beer” is a valid observation. The use of drugs and alcohol to “numb the pain” simply make the pain last longer and can lead to severe complications. A toast to the departed or sharing a drink while talking to an understanding friend probably poses no danger. Using alcohol or drugs to sleep, or “get me through the day” is cause for major concern. Be gentle with yourself.
You may experience some of these human phenomena for a surprisingly long time. With each passing day, as you explore and understand your loss, they will diminish in frequency and intensity.
The most important tool you have for recovery is to talk with accepting, understanding men and women about your loss.