Thursday, September 8, 2011

Opinion: On the Loss of Family. Coping with Grief*

Death is for many of us the gate of hell; but we are inside on the way out, not outside on the way in. – George Bernard Shaw

There is no place more full of love in the world than a graveyard. Each stone represents a life,
and it was put there by those who held them most dear. Remember that the next time you walk by one,
and smile as you reflect on all the love you see. Photo: pink.polka, Flickr ccl
My uncle, Walter Wile Freeman, passed away September 7, 2011 after spending the last month, most in intensive care, at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He fought a brave fight against an unyielding foe. He was 83 years old.

I write this in tribute to him as a help for all who may be grieving a loss, and as help for myself. Grief touches us all. We need to understand it to help face its savageness. Because, believe me, it can be savage. But it can be overcome.

What is grief?
Grief is the emotion we feel when we suffer loss. Grief is not limited to a response to death but can be brought on by many situations. Most importantly, you must understand that there is no "right" way to grieve. Responses to loss are as varied as there are individuals on the planet. It's how we face those feelings that dictate the long term impact they will have on us.

Grief is a natural response. It’s the emotional suffering we feel when something or someone we cherish is taken away. Loss caused by death often causes the most intense grief. Any loss can cause grief including loss of a relationship, your health, job, pet, or a friendship. There are many more as well. Any can engender intense feelings of sorrow.

Photo: Toni Kaarttinen, Flickr ccl
Grief is different for every person
Usually the more significant the loss the more intense the feeling of grief. No one can presuppose your feelings. They are as individual to you as you are different from any other person.

You will grieve differently based on your personality, your life experience and your faith, if you subscribe to one.

Some people grieve for days, weeks or months. For others the grieving process can take years to finally have your feelings be absorbed into your psyche. Note, I say absorb.

Grief never truly goes away, nor should it. Over time it becomes mellow and enters into the deep parts of what makes you who you are.

However long it may take, understand that you need to process your loss in your own individual manner.

Myths about grief
Your sorrow will go away faster if you ignore it.
You must face your grief and actively find ways to deal with it. Suppressing it will only let it grow and resurface time and again. This only makes matters worse.

You must show strength in the face of loss.
Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is normal and crying doesn’t mean you are weak. No one in your family feels you need to keep strong for them. Allowing your true feelings to show can help them as much as you.

If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t grieving the "right" amount.
Crying is just one of the very normal responses to loss. Just because your personality is not one where tears flow easily does not mean you are hard hearted or don't feel sorrowful.

Grief should last no more than a year.
In Victorian times the remaining spouse dressed in black for a socially prescribed period of one year. This probably resulted in many widows or widowers being identified on sight as grieving long after they had dealt with their loss. Times have changed, thank goodness. How long you grieve differs vastly from person to person. It can be short or long.

The five stages of grief
The Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as The Five Stages of Grief, was first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Her Stages were based on observances of over 500 critically ill patients. If you are experiencing any of these emotions rest assured they are totally normal. They are:
Bargaining (with God if you are religious)

When my father died at 89 years old (after a long battle with Pick's Disease), and my Bouvier son Simon at 12 two years after, I went through the stages. They don't necessarily appear in the order listed above, although in my case they did. With dad death was expected "at some time" although a shock; with Simon his decline took less than one month.

Understand that you don't have to experience all the stages of grief for you to process your sorrow.

Photo: skatoolaki, Flickr ccl
Common symptoms of grief
Each of the five stages of grief can manifest itself in different ways, just as each person is different. There are some common emotions associated with grief. Just remember you're not going crazy, and do not make any life altering decisions while you are grieving. 

No one gets out of this life alive—you, me, anyone. It happens to us all. Grief over people we love will touch us all.

Some common emotions are:
Shock and disbelief:  Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss happened, or even deny it.

Sadness: Deep sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may feel emptiness, despair, yearning, or loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel like your life is coming apart.

Guilt: It is common to re-live your interactions with the person who has passed away and maybe have deep regrets. Remember, trying to change the past is as ineffectual as trying to control the future. It's impossible. We live in the present only. Any regrets you feel must be put into that perspective. The person who has died cannot be affected. The two saddest words in the world are "what if…".

Anger: Even if the loss was no one's fault you may feel anger towards someone, or even yourself. You may be angry with God, or the health professionals who tended to your loved one. Sometimes it even manifests against the person who passed away for abandoning you. There also may be strong feelings of needing to blame someone for your loss.

Fear: Loss can bring on a flood of worries and fears like anxiety, helplessness, or insecurity. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.

Physical symptoms: Our bodies are wondrous interconnected organisms. Grief doesn't have to be just emotional. There often are physical symptoms as well. We can suffer from sleep loss and fatigue, or nausea, weight loss (or gain), and even aches and pains.

How can you help yourself cope?
Get as much support as you can to face your loss either from inside your family or outside. This may be other people who have lived through the same situation. It could be your church, synagog, temple or mosque. Look for grief support groups that fit your situation. Most importantly, if you feel you may need professional counselling to cope with your loss seek it out. There is no shame in having strong feelings associated with loss.

You must also learn to take care of yourself by letting your feelings out. This is not the same as having to be "strong." Stress can quickly deplete your emotional ability to respond to other situations in your life. You must examine your feelings to be able to deal with them. Express them. If you are an artists you can express in your medium, a writer can write, and so on. If you don't have that kind of outlet even keeping a journal of your thoughts will allow you to capture your feelings. Once written down, you can begin the process of managing how they affect you.

Above all, look after your health. Eat even if you don't feel like it. Not eating, or eating poorly, can bring on a host of other problems. Don't try to bury your feelings in alcohol or drugs. They may numb the pain temporarily, but the feelings will come back when they wear off.

Remember, only you will know when your grieving is over. There may be those around you who feel you've grieved long enough, but do not listen to them. You must complete the process in your own time and at your own pace.

Photo: nicksarebi, Flickr ccl
How to help someone who's grieving
I was lucky to have the support of my wonderful spouse in my grief. I know that I will be there in the same way at any time the tables are turned.

You need to keep the lines of communication open, let them talk freely and frankly about what they are feeling. Do not be judgemental. That is of absolutely no use at all.

Your support, love and understanding are probably the most precious gifts you can ever give to someone who is grieving.

Be there for them—any time and in any way you can.

When grief doesn’t go away
Sometimes grief can turn into depression. This is something you need to look out for if you are the griever or their support. If the feelings of grief (and associated feelings) get worse over time it may be a sign of depression. For that you may need the help of professionals.

Treatment for depression is varied. It can range from self-help such as:
physical exercise (releasing endorphins which are natural stress fighters)
stress management techniques (meditation for anxiety, for example)
changes in nutrition (certain foods can strengthen how well we can respond to stress)

to counselling sessions and if necessary medication. Be aware that medication works best when you are actively trying to deal with the underlying issues that are the root cause.

There are also herbal options available. Be certain to not start a regimen of chemicals of any kind without consulting your physician. They may interfere with other medications you are currently taking or may cause allergic reactions.

The time will come again when you will smile
Open communication is the best way to start dealing with grief, be that with family, friends or your doctor. Remember that grief can be overwhelming one day and entirely absent the next. Certain things may also act as triggers, for example holidays, birthdays or special places. Prepare yourself for them.

Just remember that as time goes by the feelings of sadness with diminish. You won't forget the person who you have lost but the feelings will be combined with warm memories that will make you smile and maybe even laugh.

Cherish the memory of the person whom you grieve. Let the grieving process unfold in a way that is natural for you. Ask yourself if the person who you loved (and loved you) would want you to feel sad forever. The answer is most certainly "no." 

Grief is a natural process, as natural as breathing. Remember at the end is happiness in knowing you were blessed with having the person you have lost in your life.

Final words: some advice
This advice won't alleviate the depth of your sorrow but if you use it future tragedies will be more bearable. These words are good advice for anyone, grieving or not.

Tell those you love how you feel every chance you can. Treat each other with respect and kindness. Show care and compassion. Even if the person is passed away, your religion probably prescribes to the idea they are still with you somehow. Talk to who you have lost.

My last words to my father were "I love you, Dad." His last words to me: "I love you too." That's the memory that I live with. It makes the loss more bearable as it's my final memory of him. I'm glad I took my own advice.

*Although this information was gathered from reliable sources, alway rely on the advice of professionals in dealing with deep sorrow in your life.

Grief is itself a medicine. – William Cowper


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