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Grief and Loss

Grief is a natural human response to loss. Grief is also a natural human response to change, as all change in life brings loss in some form, whether big or small. Most of us have recognized this fact when making a big life change – for example, moving away to go to college and having to say goodbye to childhood friends. And for most of life’s events, we navigate the grief process relatively well and mostly unscathed. But sometimes life can bring about devastating loss. And with devastating loss comes devastating grief. Grief of this sort can be debilitating. It can be suffocating. It can paralyze us for weeks or months or years with depression. It can make us lose the will to live.

Mirabai Starr, who lost her 14-year old daughter, Jenny, reflects on the grief process with profound wisdom:

When someone you love very much dies, the sky falls. And so you walk around under a fallen sky.

There is no map for the landscape of loss, no established itinerary, no cosmic checklist, where each item ticked off gets you closer to success. You cannot succeed in mourning your loved ones. You cannot fail. Nor is grief a malady, like the flu. You will not get over it. You will only come to integrate your loss. . . . The death of a beloved is an amputation. You find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back.

Grief throws us into chaos. We each respond differently, and it is important to recognize that fact. A veterinarian friend reported what she has observed when she has to euthanize a dog, which happens almost weekly in her busy practice. There might be five people in the room who are all from the same family. The moment the dog passes, one family member begins to sob in anguish. Another family member punches the wall. A third family member walks out of the room. Yet another family member begins obsessively talking, getting organized with the cremation and billing procedures, while the fifth family member stares blankly ahead, almost frozen. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person who has suffered a major loss to respond differently years later at the occurrence of another major loss. We may feel we are coming unglued. Or we may feel the opposite: completely numb, shut off inside, unable to cry for a year or more about the loss. We may have the sudden urge to relocate, to sell or redecorate the house, to buy a new car. Our behavior may be perplexing to us (and to others). Part of the reason it is perplexing is that we as a society have moved the grief process underground. Because we no longer share openly about it, none of us has any idea what to expect. We have no idea that what we are experiencing is normal.

In today’s modern American culture, grief goes largely unnoticed. When it is acknowledged, it is often misunderstood or minimized. The world does not stop to allow us to grieve. Grief is already an isolating experience. But this huge cultural blind spot leads the bereaved to feel even more alienated, prompting them to stuff and deny their feelings or go further underground with their pain. We have to somehow continue with our lives and grieve at the same time. We all try to get back to work, to “be strong” (i.e. act unaffected) and to “act normal” as quickly as possible. But for those who are deeply bereaved, they quickly discover, this is literally an impossible task. We are operating under the uninformed assumption that somehow we will be better in a few weeks, when the reality is that most significant losses can take years to move past the searing pain. We have lost our cultural framework for how to compassionately move through grief ourselves and for how to honor or be emotionally present for those who are grieving.

In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (documenting the aftermath that followed the unexpected death of her husband), Joan Didion makes some poignant observations about grief. She quotes excerpts from Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, specifically the chapter on Funerals. Ms. Didion observes:

“This tone, one of unfailing specificity, never flags.  The emphasis remains on the practical….There was something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here [about how to assist the bereaved].

[Ms. Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view. [An author] notes that beginning about 1930 there had been …a revolution in accepted attitudes toward death. ‘Death,’ he wrote, ‘so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden.’ [Another author] had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new ‘ethical duty to enjoy oneself,’ a novel ‘imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.’ … [T]he contemporary trend was to ‘treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hid their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.’

One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition from which Mrs. Post wrote, the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable. At the time she undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath.”

We have lost touch with this skill. Usually, it is only those who have been through deep grief that really understand what someone is going through when they suffer a devastating loss. It is also usually only those who have been through deep grief who are able to sit with someone who is deeply bereaved without rushing to “fix them” or “fix it,” because they know it cannot be fixed. They understand as perhaps few others can that there is no way out but through: healing can only begin when we allow ourselves to feel. But as Ms. Starr so profoundly observes in the quoted material above, we do not get over it. We only come to integrate our loss. The death of a beloved is an amputation. We eventually, painstakingly, haltingly find a new center of gravity, but the limb does not grow back.

In our culture, it is more acceptable for women to deal with feelings (whether their own or someone else’s) than for men. Thus men have a harder time processing their grief as well as responding to another person’s grief. Often men best process grief through “doing.” For example, a man’s father died very suddenly and unexpectedly. His father loved woodworking and spent all his spare time working in his wood shop. He always had some project going on. As a kid, the son had spent a lot of time with his dad working on projects, but once he became a teen he lost interest. The beginning of true healing for him occurred when he went out to the shop with some of his dad’s buddies and together they finished the “latest project.” It was his therapeutic way of grieving. This example is meant to be illustrative only; there are as many ways to process grief as there are cherished relationships to honor.

When we are bereaved, we may also suffer what is known as a collateral loss. A collateral loss happens when a person we expected to understand what we are going through does not understand, or when a person we depended upon for some kind of emotional support goes MIA and leaves us high and dry at the time we most need them. Unfortunately, collateral losses are usually a spouse/partner or very close friend. Sometimes these collateral relationships are lost in the aftermath of the primary loss. It can compound our loss and our grief and it removes a primary area of support.

If you have suffered a devastating loss, just know that you are not alone even though you feel as if you are. You are the only person who had that specific relationship with your beloved. Your relationship was unique to you, so your loss is unique to you. But there are people around who want to help. Another anomaly to the grief process is that we find helpful souls everywhere. People we barely know step in and step up in thoughtful, generous, and unimaginable ways.

Years ago, a description of grief, and our powerlessness over it, appeared in the most unusual place. In the 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha, the main character, many years after suffering a loss, reflects, “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It is like a window that will open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”

As lawyers and judges, we are adept at compartmentalizing. We have to be good at this skill in order to do our jobs well. Deep grief bashes through those compartmental walls, turning them to ash in its wake. It is not a sign that we are broken or doing anything wrong. It is the nature of grief.

Good grief counseling really does help, both in the depths of our despair in the early stages as well as later, when we begin to move into our new center of gravity, which can feel like a betrayal of our deceased loved one. Grief counseling also helps us understand our process and the natural reactions we might have at various stages, like the backlash feeling of guilt the first time we laugh or enjoy something again. Because we do not have a cultural understanding and acceptance of this process, grief counseling is all the more important to help us navigate these uncharted waters. Local hospice organizations almost always have grief counseling services available for a very reasonable fee. LAP can assist you in finding a grief counselor in your area.

Most importantly, go easy on yourself. Whatever you are feeling is normal – even if it feels extreme or the opposite – if you are numb and cannot seem to feel anything at all. Whatever you are experiencing, it is not a place for judgment or “shoulds.” Honoring our beloved means honoring ourselves and our experience through this process.

Give us a call or email us today if we can assist you in finding a grief counselor in your area.