Dealing With Grief

BY Dr. Bert Pitts

Grieving is a normal and natural response to the losses and changes we experience. Even positive changes (like moving to a new department when a huge promotion has been granted) can evoke grief, as we have to re-adjust to what has been familiar territory and faces. Grieving over the death of a loved one easily can require 3-6 months or more. One should clear plenty of time, and not expect to be functioning normally any time soon. It is a long journey, often never “finished” but rather only “worked through” or “passed through.” Indeed, with grief and many other such “dark nights” in life, an old adage is that “the only way out is through.”

Everyone grieves in their own way. One merely has to listen to the signals from their emotions. Some days, the individual may be able to handle a normal stress load. However, the very next day, only 25% of the normal stress capacity may feel overwhelming. There is simply no short cut around going through grief—and the fact that it hurts, so often deeply. (In fact, the expression of grief’s pain and agony actually serves the purpose of cleansing, “purging,” and healing our wounded, frightened psyche, and preparing it to cope.)

Children and adolescents, less able to put such huge and profound losses in perspective, much less possessing life experience to cope with them, might have more extended periods of denial, anger, irritability, and/or depression, sometimes severe. It is not at all uncommon for grades to drop. The instinct of parents and teachers might be, in somewhat of a “boundaryless” manner, to “cut slack” for the grieving youngster, not to imply that some slack is wrong or improper. However, too much “boundarylessness” usually is not a good thing. In other words, while patience, allowing frequent hugs or periods of holding, and/or a “shoulder to cry on” (but only if desired by the youth!)—as well as a certain degree of flexibility with rules and responsibilities—is usually called for, setting no boundary or “time limit” (i.e., out of the “real world”) at all, nor any expectation for at least some degree of moving on with one’s life, does not help the child or youth to feel comforted very much, nor to heal. In fact, it can leave them with an enduring sense of insecurity, instability, and fear about life, death, and relationships.

To further explain the latter, the child or youth’s feelings of grief can be overwhelming, swirling, and consuming (not that an adult’s is anything less). In this case, normal “rules,” expectations, routines, responsibilities, and structure can and usually do function like a “retaining wall,” keeping the swirling mass of grief and darkness from feeling like it could “swallow them alive.” Strangely enough, things as mundane and ho-hum as “homework and chores needing to be done,” “school tomorrow morning,” seeing their friends and teachers, and “getting back to business” all can help immensely to recreate a sense of order and sameness in the youngster’s overturned world.

Thus, the parents, relatives, and other adults might have the terrifically difficult and unenviable task of trying one’s best to comfort when no comfort is felt (by the adult), trying to be strong when no strength is felt, and providing some measure of stability when the adult’s world, too, has been turned upside-down. Why?…purely and simply…because someone has to be the parent, and the adult. (No one ever said parenting was easy!) This is when “care for the caregiver” may be vital. Children and youth often get through deaths of parents and relatives without psychotherapy or counseling! How?…because enough “other” adults, relatives, and surrogate parents step up, step in, and surround the children and youth with love and support. Emotionally speaking, they carry the young through their deep valley. But for parents (as well as for the young, whenever it appears needed), professional help and/or guidance can be crucial. Ministers, rabbis, clerics, chaplains, and other religious leaders (as well as all mental health professionals) deal with death, grieving, and guiding devastated adults and surviving spouses and parents constantly…often giving advice about how to help the children.

Parents, please…you don’t have to go it alone, nor is it wise to try. Get help, so you can help your own. Think of how, on a plane during the safety briefing by the flight attendant, the adults are instructed to get oxygen for themselves first, then only after that, giving the mask to their kids. In other words, the children you care for depend on you to keep yourself nurtured…they assume that to be a “given”…something they don’t have to worry about…“terra firma.” Does this mean that the adult should not cry around the child or youth, or show any pain? Of course not…the very thought is ridiculous, unrealistic, and would probably make the young hurt even more, if not become angry and defensive of the departed. However, the adult needs to maintain some degree of control, however slight, some degree to still function as the parent. (When this is not possible, relatives, friends, and other parent surrogates can step in to care for the children and youth until the parent is again able to “take the reins,” hopefully soon.)

Interestingly, more parents worry (and/or consult child mental health professionals) when their child or youth doesn’t seem to be grieving “enough,” not to imply that seeking help or perspective on this is not wise. In other words, children and youth regularly take their grief within, and work it out quietly. Boys, at times, think that a “macho, stiff upper lip” approach like this is the right one, and have to be encouraged to talk about it. Parents should not be alarmed, though, if he or she doesn’t have a flood of crocodile tears for weeks and months…tears may not appear more than once or twice, if at all. Teens may feel more comfortable talking out their grief to a friend’s mother or father than to their own (this is even more common following a divorce, as the youth does not want to appear disloyal to either parent). Even in the case of a parent dying, the teen likely worries about overly burdening the surviving parent, knowing how much they are already hurting.

OK…back to the general topic of grief and adults. The main mistake that adults make in response to grief is to pretend that going through it is not necessary. “Stoic” individuals such as this often immerse themselves in their work, or perhaps an addiction. At times, they can get away with such avoidance…for a period of time. Their unresolved grief symptoms, though, simply “hide themselves” underground. Months, or even years down the road, all it takes is a tiny stressor, and the “old” grief feelings can come rushing to the surface like a buried nuclear explosion (and the grief feelings are even more pressurized and powerful than they would have been, had the individual allowed themselves to go through them at the proper time.)

The Jewish faith offers all of us some good lessons regarding grief, with very wise traditions, obviously developed through thousands of years of close observation of human nature. Orthodox Jews have a practice of “keeping Kaddish” for 100 days beyond the loss of a loved one (with Kaddish being the “mourner’s prayer”). Indeed, three months, or about 100 days, seems to be, for most people, the length of the worst part of grief’s suffering and adjustment. Certainly, there still will be feelings of deep sadness, missing the loved one, and continuing loneliness beyond three months—but often the individual is at least closer to the point—three months or so out—that they are beginning to get “tired” of hurting and yearning to move on…(or at least they can form the thought of doing so). Indeed, God hard-wired our souls to walk through this “valley of darkness” (i.e., the deepest part of grief’s agony)…and to survive, albeit “barely,” in more than a few cases. Indeed, there is not much we can do to “mess it up” (grieving, that is)…as long as we follow the signals given us by our emotions, no matter how painful, and do (or more often, rest and NOT do) as they instruct us. These…days…do…eventually…pass. Obviously, we may never fully “move on”…how could we, with this loss?? But we can eventually face another day…and just put one foot in front of the other.

As a final note on grief, it is quite normal for people to experience full-strength, full-blown grief reactions in response to the death of a beloved animal pet. Why is this? A loved and trusted pet needs us and depends on us, and thus validates our importance each and every day. The pet accommodates to us, regardless of the type of day we are having, and gives us an unending supply of love, companionship, excitement to see us, and positive response to our attention and touch. In doing so, the pet becomes very much an extension of our selves, hence the loss can feel just as visceral as when a beloved person dies. It can be a good idea to wait a period of time before getting a new pet, if doing so is desired. (In other words, “room” needs to be made in our lives to grieve any significant loss, before we might feel able and ready to connect to and enjoy something new, without a possible feeling of betraying our dear departed one.)