What is Grief?
Grief is a multi-faceted reaction to loss. Multi-faceted in the sense that it can have far reaching impact to our psychological well being, social, and physiological systems.When I was seven I lost my grandfather. His presence was very large in my life, and we spent many a day with lessons of nature and wildlife. His loss was hard for me to comprehend. Experiencing death at an early age is a struggle cognitively and emotionally. We do are best to make sense, however it clearly is difficult to come full circle with it. This death of a loved one is what many of us understand as a normal grief reaction. My father is now eighty, and I am noticing I am in a grief state more than I was aware of. He is alive but I am grieving. Why? I am experiencing a loss of a man that I knew as extremely strong, active, and constantly doing something productive. His hearing is fading, he cannot chop a load of wood as he used to, his Marine Corp tattoo has faded across his bicep amongst the wrinkled and atrophied muscle. Grief does not have to pertain to a physical loss of a loved one, a pet or the loss of a job or home. It can be a dramatic change in a relationship or being aware that a loved one is fading in their geriatric years of life. In our Western culture we have always struggled with grief, and in medical school and physician assistant school very little time is spent on respecting the death process, and how to support someone who is grieving. We are taught indirectly and directly not to cry, and operate under a delusional premise that tears are a sign of weakness. To express feelings and tears, are frequently viewed as unhealthy, absurd but true. Go to a southern Baptist wake, and you will hear screams, see tears, and the beating on one’s chest in intense mourning and grieving. It is acceptable and healthy. As humans we connect and we bond. We bond to fellow humans, dogs, cats,and even materialistic objects such as locations and homes. The loss we experience is left up to our raw emotions and how we think is right to deal with those emotions. So how do we learn to grieve? Like we learn many of life lessons. We learn from watching our parents, our family members and the silver screen. We get direct feedback from these and draw conclusions on what is right for us. In reality what we think is right, because we have been doing it for so long may not be the most healthiest way to grieve.
What are the Five Stages of Grief?
Dr. Kubler -Ross in 1969 developed the five stages of death and dying or what has been come to be known as the five stages of grief. They are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Please be advised, we are all different and we all do not go through these stages in the order that Dr. Ross presented them. In fact we may not even go through all the stages. Some individuals may skip a stage, or become stuck in a phase of the process. In the early eighties I worked in a long term care facility. Every patient in that facility would not walk out. There were individuals with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), severe leukemia, severe end stage dementia, stroke patients, and many on respirators that only had days to live. I had no choice but to watch, listen, and learn how people and their families deal with death. For a solid thirty days, every day I dealt with death and dying at it’s apex. What I took from that facility was a few things. Number one individuals for the most part do NOT want help when grieving. They want to do it their way and it does not matter if your suggestions may be beneficial or not. Humans are strange that way, and pain as well as fear are often expressed in the form of anger. I have never hugged so many individuals who were so angry and mad at the world, life, and placed blame on anything they could find. This is what they needed to do for them to grieve. I also found that those that were dying, who had their cognitive ability, taught me how to find peace, and not just say “do not take life for granted” but actually implement it. I myself bonded, became close, shared stories, and had many die in my arms while I waited on family members to get there. I cried, I sobbed, and I went home many a night and cried some more. I listened to Jackson Browne, and other contemplative music to try understand my role here and what in the hell was I doing. I was grieving, I was grieving for myself and the patients. I was grieving a loss of myself. That loss was the loss of a young naive child that used to take nature walks with his grandfather. That person was leaving, and the realization that life has me on a predetermined path, and I could change it every day if I so choose.
How does one deal with Grief?
There is not one right or wrong way to deal with grief, however I strongly feel there are better ways to deal with grief. Ways that are better for our children, and ourselves from an emotional and physiological standpoint. In order to learn those ways, we must learn the ways that are not so healthy. There has been enough research to choke a horse that keeping emotions, and thoughts inside are not only unhealthy from a physiologic standpoint but an emotional one as well. By keeping emotions inside we raise our blood pressure, increase gastric acid output, and inadvertently change our bowel habits. We may suffer headaches, insomnia and relationship stress. One thing I have learned, the vast majority and I do mean the vast majority of individuals dying want to talk about it. They do not want family members to pretend their immanent death is not happening. So many came to me telling me their thoughts, fears and concerns, because they felt they could not talk openly about their death with their family members. Once again communication, expression, disclosure, and tears, all healthy in relationships. In fact all venues, from birth to death. Of course we need to respect those that strongly do not want to venture down the communication path, and that must be okay with the psychologists out there. That my dear follower of Peace and Healing is called respect. In summation, grieving effectively comes down to finding someone you trust and emote, express and cry. The longer one keeps issues inside the longer they hang on. I always tell my patients to dive right into the sadness, for the quicker they do the quicker they will get through it. Mankind strives for happiness, even at the expense of sacrificing new behavior that might get them there quicker. Happiness, happiness, happiness we must have it now. In order to get to the happiness, grieve my friend, learn that it is okay to cry, okay to express, and okay then to move on. Many ask me what is the length of time for normal grieving? There is no cook book length of time. If the grieving is greater than a year and it impacts your relationships, job and functioning, then your grieving is not really becoming effective to be able to function and find that happiness. We are human, we all will grieve, we all will come to terms with our death. Allow yourself to face your fear, do not worry about perceptions of others, do what YOU need to do to grieve and say your good byes. In Peace and Healing.