March 8, 2016
Maybe this sounds dark, but I’ve been thinking about grief lately. A lot. Grief is such a complex experience. I know of its complexities both professionally and personally. I am fairly certain the reason I am contemplating grief more than usual is because it is thirty years ago this January that I lost my father suddenly. We were very close. Since then, there have been grandparents and adored pets who have passed on, as well. Last year in March, I lost my sweet mother-in-law. So, yes, this season and this year, I catch myself reflecting more on grief than I typically do.
During my sophomore year of college, the same year my father passed, I remember the first time I learned about Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. After the recent death of my father, I was relieved to learn that, according to Dr. Kubler-Ross, I would proceed through these five stages of grief and then be done with it. I perceived grief at that time to be very linear, very definitive. Thirty years later, I can tell you I am more than a bit aggravated with Dr. Kubler-Ross because, as anyone would know who has lost someone dear to them, grief is anything but linear. A jumbled, edgy, achy, crampy, sludgy, messy pile of something awful, is more like it.
We grieve the physical loss of people (and pets), yes. But we also grieve events (and non-events) that are less tangible, but can be just as painful as a physical death. We grieve the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job, the loss of our youth, and the loss of our physical abilities. We grieve the losses that coincide with happy occasions, as well, such as the marriage of our children, children moving away, leaving one job for another position, or moving to a new area. We grieve retirement. Our brains sense change, the addition to or the absence of someone or something familiar, as something to be feared. Our first response is an emotional one initiated by the limbic system, the emotional register in our brain. It puts us on point. The brain senses anything unfamiliar to be something to be feared because, until proven otherwise, it might kill us.
Our individual responses to grieving are just that…individual. They are intimate, unique, and very personal. The way we manage the emotions associated with loss has everything to do with our life experiences, our genetic make-up, our current relationships, and the circumstances surrounding the loss. There is no right way or wrong way to grieve.
With that said, we absolutely can get stuck in our grief. For any number of reasons, our grief can develop into a state of mind much more complicated than what we might expect. We withdraw, cry, lash out, self-medicate to such an extent that our remaining relationships begin to suffer. Our appearance and the care of our homes show signs of continued neglect. Panic attacks can begin or reemerge without warning. Our focus, our energy, and personality prior to the loss, simply do not return well after the loss. Of course, that is the question, isn’t it? How long is long enough? When do we start to become concerned?
I do so wish I could give you an answer other than “it depends”. Research indicates that on average about 10% of individuals grieving loss experience grief that is more complicated, more acute. Even that number varies depending on the kind of loss we are talking about. The good news is that the vast majority of us, when experiencing loss, will notice some level of relief, within six months of the event. The heaviness of the loss, or the concern, or the impact, remains, but the feeling is less edgy. By and large, if you or someone you know continues to demonstrate some type of grief response (avoiding friends, job absences, strict rituals revisiting the day of the loss, too much or too little sleep, increase in alcohol or medication consumption) six months to a year after the loss, it could possibly mean that the dear individual has gotten stuck.
Stuck, however, does not necessarily mean serious mental illness. Stuck does mean, in my opinion, that a person would do well to talk with an objective, trusted person who understands the grieving process. Of course, I’m hinting at counseling, but counseling can be in the form of attending a grief support group, a meeting with a pastor, or a mental health counselor. I can tell you that what does not help a “stuck” person, are comments, such as “move on”, “get a (new) pet”, “it’s all for the best”, or “let go and let God”. Spirituality can be of tremendous comfort to a person grieving a physical, developmental, or ideological loss, but to suggest someone is not praying enough, or not Christian enough because he or she is still hurting, is ill-advised, at best. Our brains are wired to slow down and/or avoid situations that hurt us. It is that very same wiring that has kept our species alive. If someone is having difficulty emerging from loss like the other 90% of folks, it is not a result of not praying enough. It means that that person, either as a consequence of her gene pool or life experiences, has a receptor in her brain that is simply zigging when it should be zagging. Not a very clinical description, but I think you understand what I’m getting at. Complicated grief is not a character flaw.
I know I will continue to orbit around my father’s death rather than fly away from that loss never to return. In orbit, though, I get to experience the love of my father, our memories, his teachings, and the space in my heart meant only for him, from lots of different vantage points. I kind of like that better, even if it means I’ve got to hurt some along the way. If I can’t have him back physically, then I’m honored enough to circle around his spirit, taking him with me on my own journey non-stop.